Karl Marx, utopian socialist: An interview with Gregory Claeys
Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 108 | July-August 2018
On May 9, 2018, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Gregory Claeys, historian of socialism and author of Machinery, Money and the Millennium: From Moral Economy to Socialism, 1815–1860 (1987), Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850–1920 (2010), and Marx and Marxism (2018), among others. The day after recording the interview it was broadcast on “Radical Minds” on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) in Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview.
Spencer A. Leonard: This week we celebrated Marx’s 200th birthday and the appearance of your book coincided with that. In broad terms, why have you written this book? What does the world need to know in 2018 about Karl Marx?
Gregory Claeys: I have been a historian of socialism for some thirty years or so, and I have thought about this for a long time. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and then the USSR between 1989 and 1991 led to, outside of China and a few other places, a relatively sharp, sudden decline in interest in Marx. Marxism by the middle of the 20th century, of course, has been notionally in one or another variant, the ideology that dominated more than half of the world’s population. But after 1991, then this went into sharp decline. For 27 years, by and large, in the U.S. and in Western Europe—more, in fact, in Eastern Europe—relatively few people were reading Marx. So, I thought about doing this book now really for three reasons:
Firstly, of course, Marx is still the most influential thinker in human history, indisputably. There are very few parallels and they are all religious figures, although one could discuss the degree to which Marxism in one or another variance becomes a kind of secular religion. But simply historically, we want to know why that is the case. Why is Marxism influential? Why do people hold so fervently, loyally, dogmatically in many cases, to the basic ideas?
Secondly, of course, after 1991 we still have one very powerful nation, namely China, adhering to a variety of Marxism. And China is now the second-most powerful economy in the world, set to overtake the United States in the early 2020s. So, discounting Marx’s influence in the 19th and 20th century, you would want to know what this ideology is if you’re interested in the future of Chinese-Western relations. You want to know how the Chinese think. You want to know why and how they still believe that Marx is still the figure who is guiding them in the present and into the future.
The third reason, then, has much to do with the financial crisis (so-called) of 2008-9. As you may recall, for the first couple of years after there was a general tendency to treat this as just another crisis. Fairly widely there was the assumption that within three or four years there would be moderate recovery—if not full recovery, i.e. full employment, growth in the usual sense of the term. By about 2012-13 it was becoming increasingly obvious that this was not going to be the case. In fact, the economy was changing fairly dramatically. The effects of globalization were not negated but, in some respects, exacerbated and hastened by the financial crisis. Along with the decline in the number of decent jobs—the decline in the conditions and terms of employment, the decline in decent pensions, the relative decline in affluent middle-class jobs in particular—younger people born after the late 1980s to early 1990s now for the first time began to realize that their life chances were less than those of their parents’ and their grandparents’ generation, that their prospects in life therefore were not merely less, but actually probably declining.
If you look now back to 2012-14, two phenomena begin to arise in the last couple of years that have nothing to do with the 200th anniversary, although that certainly raised a fair amount of publicity on its own accord, but increased interest in Marx as a thinker. The first is that we recognize now that the latest stage of the Industrial Revolution—mechanization, often called robotization, the increasing introduction of robots. Not just in industry, to build large-scale commodities and so on, but also in services and also in many other spheres where we have traditionally had human employment. That this, projecting forwards now to the middle of the 21st century, and then the end, threatens much larger permanent unemployment for large parts of humanity than had been the case in the stages of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 20th century and just beginning of the 21st century. The current projections are that, by about 2050, some 30% of lost jobs will be replaced by machines. And if we project, then, further forward to the year 2100, then perhaps as much as much as sixty to seventy percent will disappear. But then there’s another factor, again, the discourse sometimes referred to as climate change, but which is really environmental catastrophe. This started – if you pardon the expression – to warm up very substantially in just these same years. You may recall that prior to about 2010 or so, most discussions projected one to one and a half degrees celsius global warming. The worst case scenario was generally two degrees, or maybe slightly above. By about 2010, and certainly by 2014-2015, this discourse began to alter dramatically. People were now seriously contemplating an increase of over two degrees and indeed over three degrees celsius, which is now regarded as pretty much a catastrophic scenario—melting of both the polar caps; melting of all the glaciers; drastic heating therefore on the Earth’s surface; rendering much of the center of the earth, the tropical region, pretty well uninhabitable; and a large rise in the ocean levels. This kind of dystopian, catastrophist scenario is, of course, inevitably linked to capitalism. One of the ironies about mixing all these things together now is that Marxism traditionally, by the time Marx formulates his mature ideas—I would say by the 1850s—is still oriented toward production, exchange, consumption, a high standard of living, the difference of course being that that standard of living is extended to the majority of the population and not confined only to the privileged bourgeoisie or middle classes. So, from this point of view, to cut to the end of this particular narrative, Marx does not offer us any kind of real solution to probably the single greatest problem facing us in the 21st century.
So that’s three major reasons to look at Marx again. And if you look at the concentration of interest in Marx—mostly burgeoning in the 1960s and 70s, peaking around the middle of the 80s, and then going into sharp decline—most of that literature says nothing about environmental problems. Most of that literature says relatively little about how Marx might approach the problem of further advanced mechanization or—where there are passages, particularly in the Grundrisse in the so-called “fragment on machines,” which hint at the possibility that in the future—there will be the possibility the working classes have much more free time to educate themselves precisely because machinery will now be doing so much of the dirty work that had previously been done by human beings. So, the reason for writing a book in 2018 is that in a lot of ways the secondary literature on Marx is pretty outdated. There have been some discoveries of texts—mostly letters and so on, full editions of various writings, etc. are now available—but the main reason is that history has moved on. The problems that we are facing in the 21st century are in some respects at least decidedly different from the Marx secondary literature address in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now having said that, of course, there is one major overlap, and that is capitalism. Capitalism not only has not gone away, it is alive and healthy. Although in the last couple of years there have been more pronouncements about its probable demise than certainly at any point in the last twenty-seven years or so since the collapse of the USSR. This is related not just to the central problem of our own time, the decade since the 2008 crisis, which is inequality—capitalism, of course, has produced since the late 1970s a sharper and more rapid growth in inequality than at any time previously. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few—in 2016 about eighty billionaires control the same amount of wealth as about half the world’s population; by 2018, that’s reduced to about forty billionaires or so. And, of course, the concentration does not just mean that the rich get richer. The poor are also by and large—because of declining wages or prolonged unemployment at low wages, declining provision of healthcare, declining provision of social welfare, social security, and so on—in a much worse position now than they were even ten years ago. Another reason why the younger generation feels the life expectancy they have before them is much worse than that of their parents or their grandparents. So if the theme of capitalism in the 19th century that Marx is most concerned to rectify is inequality produced by capitalism, since 2008 we have become alarmingly reminded that this is indeed just the same face of capitalism. If these trends continue on their present course, we could potentially witness the kind of catastrophe that occurred in 1848, but potentially also 1917.
SL: Could you also talk about your book as an intervention on the Left, in terms of the crisis the Left is currently experiencing?
GC: Well, the spectrum of politics, of course, is different in the U.S. from what it is in Europe. We have well established labor and social democratic parties, albeit not very successful just at the moment. The oldest is the German Social Democratic Party, which originally regarded itself as one of the legitimate heirs of Marx’s ideas. Most of the Left parties in Europe since the decline of Communist parties in the 1990s adhere to one or another variety of a mixed economy. So, a certain range of public services, provision of transportation, healthcare, and so on, either owned, or at least managed by, the public and certainly subject to relatively strict state control and cost management. The crucial difference here, just to take the single-most important example between Britain and the U.S., is that we have a free public health system. If you are ill, you go to the hospital, you go to your local GP and you are seen to. It is not a perfect system, but it is a very good one. And nobody goes bankrupt because of medical costs. So, this is the chief inheritance of Labour’s electoral victory in 1945. Now, of course it has been picked away at and the current conservative government seems pretty clearly to want to privatize it and to allow especially North American private health companies to come in, essentially to privatize the entire business. But there is tremendous loyalty on the part of the population. So, privatizing the NHS is not on the immediate cards. So if you then think, however, of the areas like transportation, again in the postwar period, most of the railways in Europe and quite a lot of airlines were owned by the state. Following the beginnings of the trend of neoliberal thought and legislation in the Reagan-Thatcher era, quite a lot of these have been privatized, but in some countries they are still in state ownership. And amongst the aspects of the platform of the Labour Party at the moment is re-nationalization, for example, of the trains. Our railways are now the most expensive in Europe and it is not terribly reliable, sadly, either. It is a bad combination, relatively poor service and an extremely high prices. And re-nationalization is regarded as a very popular option amongst the electorate. So that’s one of the things that Jeremy Corbyn has proposed should he win the next general election. So, the spectrum in that sense is rather further to the left than in the U.S.
Now, if you go back to the beginning of the question you asked about the nature of Left interventions, there is of course, after 1991, quite a lot of critical reaction to the idea of a “Left” as such, less so in Europe than in the U.S. The taint, however, of Stalinism and the whole of the Communist experience is very powerful. I have had differences with lots of friends and colleagues on this particular issue. But it has been my view pretty much all the way through that the Left has no interest whatsoever in trying to paper over the truth of what I think we can fairly call totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. Quite to the contrary. In the last book I did before this one called Dystopia: A Natural History, there’s a long section in which I look at Stalinism in various forms, particularly Eastern European and Soviet Stalinism, and I pretty much come to the conclusion that it was a really awful system. I mean, the number of victims under Stalin is probably up to twenty million. If you count various other regimes, Maoism and so on, it goes much higher than that. And dictatorships are unpleasant. These kinds of dictatorships are particularly unpleasant. We have to just confront that. One of the questions, of course, you are led to ask if you have an interest in Marx is, what’s the accountability here? How far is Marx responsible for the degradation of Marxism into various forms of dictatorship, following in particular the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917? That’s a large and complicated question, but the basic observation I make here is that we have to confront Stalin if we want to go back to Marx. It is that simple. We cannot simply jump over the period from 1917 to 1991 and say, “Well, some mistakes were made, and so on, but basically Marx put forward a lot of really good ideas which we should now return to.” It is quite clear that if there has been that much degradation then we need to face up to the fact. In fact I do not think the Left has a legitimate starting point anymore unless it can put its hands up and say, “Mea culpa, we played some role in the production of this. If we’re going to move forward with a critique of capitalism which will appeal to a large part of the electorate, we have to recognize that some things went terribly wrong in the 20th century.” And I think we can do that. One of the reasons why the entry-point that I have taken in the book to Marx, writing as a historian of socialism, is to Marx as a socialist, is that when Marx begins writing in 1842-4, he already witnesses—so to speak, in the library on the table in front of him, in the working men’s clubs of Cologne, Paris, Brussels, and so on—many different contending trends within socialism. They’re not all communist. They’re not all revolutionary. Some have schemes of reward which would reward effort deferentially, others disagree with that and emphasize the need for equality of remuneration, and so on. If we look at Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the lesser-known names amongst the Germans, Marx confronted, along with the followers of all these leading figures, an entire spectrum of socialist possibilities.
SL: When we look at the politics of a Jeremy Corbyn, in some sense, it looks backwards—back to the Atlee government of 1945, for instance. Whereas the question that Marx poses is, can we look back at the history of revolutionary socialism (however we understand that), i.e. the project of not simply ameliorating capitalism, but transforming it into a new form of society. Obviously, we’re never going to confront the precise situation that Marx confronted, but the question remains what a 21st century return to Marx could mean. It seems that every time the Left experienced a crisis in the 20th century, there was this question of a return to Marx. What might this mean to us now, after the Left, so to speak?
GC: Well, it would be a great shame, of course, if we had not learned anything from the 19th and the 20th centuries. This would be a very sad judgment on our capacity to improve gradually from our mistakes. We have to do that, but if we’re turning back to Marx in the 21st century, we want to be able to say what did not work in the paradigm establish in the 19th and moved forward in the 20th. So, if we’re going back, what we’re trying to do at the same time is to eliminate the possibility of at least making the same mistakes. Now, of course, the problems we’re facing are not exactly the same, for reasons I specified at the outset. The environmental issue is extremely different, extremely provocative. It forces us to go beyond both Marx and capitalism, because we need to restrain the process of production. We need to restrain the process of consumption. We need also to restrain population growth, because there just is not enough of a planet to sustain us—we now have slightly over seven and a half billion people. We cannot really even sustain that, much less the ten to fifteen billion that we are projected to have by the end of the 21st century. So, returning to Marx will mean plundering – picking and choosing, taking the bits that seem to work, while rejecting what does not seem to work.
I expect that some of your listeners, at least, will be uncomfortable with the idea that Marx inevitably implies revolution. The view I take of this is that by the 1880s, Marx had himself suggested that capitalism was amenable to to peaceful transformation. He said that this could probably only occur in the advanced countries like Holland, Britain, America, and so on. Transformation through the ballot box is at least on the table at that point, by the time Marx dies in 1883. So we do not have to take the paradigm of 1917 as the only one we can glean from Marx. Then question then is—assuming that we agree peacefully to transform society and we want to put some new paradigm in place to replace capitalism—we need to think very carefully about what that alternative is going to be.
My sense is that there are a variety of halfway houses—the kinds of ideals contemplated by most of the Left, social democratic, socialist parties in Europe. What this implies, first of all, is a mixed economy where there is both public and private ownership. This implies control over finance capital in particular. We are all well aware there is a very substantial problem at the moment with the wealthy and very large corporations are able to avoid tax, so the burden of tax is ever pushed upon consumers and upon individual citizens. And something like 25% of the world’s wealth is outhoused, located non-transparently in tax havens. So we clearly need to move sharply against these phenomena. We need to make large corporations responsible for taxes in the domains where they are making profits. We need maximum transparency, both of corporate taxation and of individual wealth accumulation.
So then mixed ownership within the economy as a whole, movement towards evermore sustainable economic goals. By sustainable, of course, we mean movement towards forms of energy production that do not involve coal and, increasingly, do not involve natural gas, and so on. So, wind and electric first and foremost. And then we need to move towards facing full-on the potentials for environmental catastrophe, towards producing goods which are not guaranteed to break within a short period of time. Producing goods for the long run, in other words, without planned obsolescence. We need to start to think through the problem of overpopulation. All of these things, I think, can be solved. The crucial thing is we have to admit that the present system is broken. We have to admit that the existing system of inequality is is extremely harmful. It is harmful not only because the poor are getting poorer. It leads to the corruption of electoral processes almost everywhere. Instead of democracy, we essentially have plutocracy. A relatively small number of people control such an amount of propaganda that they have the capacity to swing elections. So, I do not imagine a revolutionary scenario. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I do think that the sense is just beginning to gel, especially among the younger generation, that the system is broken, the sense that it has probably been broken from the beginning. But now because of this new factor, environmental crisis, we have to address fully the implications of staying on the path that we’re on. Once we face up to that, then we can set out a rational course.
SL: I want to talk now about Marx in the 19th century. One of the things about your book is that you are a historian of socialism. This raises the question of the historical moment in which Marx comes age, the 1840s. That was the time that Marx was becoming the Marx we know. As we all know, French socialism, English political economy, and German Idealism are the streams that feed into Marx. For him, this meant the legacy of the French Revolution, socialism, and the philosophical aftermath of Hegel. More precisely, who and what were Marx’s key influences and points of reference in the period of 1842-8, and in what ways did those influences abide for Marx?
GC: We first encounter Marx as a serious thinker in 1842. At this point he is a radical of a type which is immediately recognizable in that environment, given the inheritance of the French Revolution of 1789. So in this time to be a radical—although there are a number of different positions covered by that term—implies, first of all, the pursuit of at least universal manhood suffrage. Some people are hoping for female suffrage as well, but not many. So universal manhood suffrage is the most important thing. Secondly, then, there is the demand for the establishment, generally speaking, of a democratic republic. That’s as idea inherited from 1789. So, the abolition of the monarchy, the abolition of aristocratic privilege, and of the holding of large portions of land by the churches, and so on. That’s Marx’s starting point in 1842 when he becomes a journalist. Now, the trajectory of the development over the next two years is quite dramatic and extremely intense. Marx is already a very intense person to begin with, but he’s thinking, burning the midnight oil constantly, in an environment where it seems at this point that revolution may well be on the cards in any number of different European countries in the near future.
So, around 1843, we find Marx disavowing any kind of communism. He remains a radical through at least 1843. The point of conversion is 1843 into 1844, and there are a number of different influences here. Of course, from the Young Hegelian circle, particularly Berlin. Men whose names are pretty well unknown today—Bruno Bauer, the communist Moses Hess, Ludwig Feuerbach, who is extremely important for Marx through 1845, and others. The point of conversion is a point at which Marx finds himself pushed on to a completely different trajectory through meeting the man who would, of course, become his lifelong intellectual partner, Friedrich Engels. They had met very briefly once beforehand, but when they first meet in August 1844 in Paris, they get on like a house on fire. Now, this is important because Engels, who works as a lowly clerk playing a minor supervisory role at a cotton-spinning factory in Manchester partly owned by his father, had become a communist as the result of a conversation with one of the few leading communists in Germany at that point, a man named Moses Hess. When Engels lands in Manchester in 1842, he’s a newly-minted communist. He finds there a fairly well-organized group of the followers of the founder of English socialism, a man named Robert Owen. Eventually, Owen came to run a very successful factory at a place called New Lanark, which he becomes manager of in 1800. And so, for some strange reason, by about 1815, 1817, Owen decides, although he’s making a vast amount of money—he’s a very wealthy man—that he does not like the capitalist system. He does not like what it does to workers. He does not like the narrow division of labor. He does not like the conditions of work, which are hot and unhealthy. He does not like the fact that young children are being widely employed from the ages of six and seven—they are useful for crawling under the machinery and repairing broken threads and suffer large numbers of injuries as a consequence of the fact that the machinery is not wholly enclosed. They suffer from curvature of the spine as a result of bending over for twelve, sometimes even fifteen hours a day. So Owen turns against this and in the twenty years before the time when Engels meets with the local group of Owenites in Manchester, he founds the first major socialist school in Europe. So, by the time that Engels then attends every Sunday, as far as we know, the local Owenite meeting ground (they were called Halls of Science), Owen has become identified with a theory of capitalist crisis, with a critique of political economy as a way of understanding those crises and the nature of capitalism, and as proffering an alternative, which is atheistical and communistical. Marx had converted to atheism already, but communism is reinforced through this meeting with Engels. So the crucial point then, really, is the time that Marx spends in Paris in 1844, which brings about his writing of the so-called Paris Manuscripts, or Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
SL: So those manuscripts are written around the time that he became friends with Engels?
GC: That’s right. That very summer, as far as we know. So, there is a problem hanging over the text, insofar as—for most major modern readers, after about 1960 or so—the Paris Manuscripts are the entry-point into the whole of Marx’s thought. Marx here portrayed the famous theory of alienation, of the alienation of the worker from themselves, from other workers, from the object or product of labor, and from the term taken from Feuerbach, “species-being,” from our sociable essence. This theory evokes an image of Marx as a kind of humanist. And for this reason, when the text was first published, many existing communist regimes were extremely suspicious about it. It appeared to indicate that actually-existing socialist or communist societies in fact rendered people just as alienated as they were under capitalism. Heaven forbid! They did not want to draw that conclusion, so there was a massive effort to suppress this text. But by the late 1960s, this was the entry-point for almost all readers of Marx. And if you’re first encountering Marx when you’re 18, 19, 20, this is a really exciting text. It appears to offer a kind of existential view of humanity’s plight in general, namely that we are alienated as we enter the world. It appears to identify the productive process as the crucial site that generates this alienation, but it also hints at the fact that there are other forms of alienation, and underling all of this still is the possibility of developing a higher form of humanity. Now this is a legacy that Marx takes into the later writings. There has been a lot of controversy, of course, about the degree to which Marx changes his mind from this point onward, because he does not publish the text and particularly because the text seems to center upon Feuerbach’s theory of species-being, which is an account of the kind of innate sociability we possess. We naturally want to live communally with other human beings, we naturally want to live on good terms with them. What interferes in modern society is the fact that the economic system makes us all competitors. It pits us all ruthlessly, mercilessly against one another and makes it impossible for us to really offer the kind of mutual assistance that the concept of species-being suggests is the essence of what it is to be human. So, when Marx takes this as his critical standpoint in 1844. More than anything else, he says, “What’s wrong with capitalism is that it does not allow us to fulfill the potential of our humanity. It does not allow us to fulfill the creative possibility of development, through the division of labor in particular.” Adam Smith’s famous account in the Wealth of Nations is the starting point in the Manuscripts: through the division of labor we become more and more narrowly specialized, less and less capable of developing fully and richly all of those creative capacities.
SL: Can you tie that to what Engels is bringing from the Owenites in terms of their thinking about cooperation and the kind of influence that has on Marx?
GC: Engels’ contribution at this point is complex and extremely interesting. When he meets Marx he has much more practical experience of what the factory system is. And in 1845, the next year, he’ll go on to publish The Condition of the Working Class in England, still one of the greatest accounts of the life of the urban working classes in the Industrial Revolution. But Engels is also much more attracted to the sort of small-scale communities that many of the early socialists suppose. This is not just the Owenites, but also Fourier and his followers. Those would recommend that the optimum model of association of human beings is a small-scale community, maybe a thousand, maybe fifteen-hundred people, sharing property in common. By living on a small scale, they are to regulate the communal relations of the group because everybody knows what everybody else is doing all the time. So you can trace this sort of utopianism all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516. The idea that the optimal form of community will include a kind of mutual surveillance. It sounds kind of sinister today, but it is not really envisioned that way by these writers. People will not really have the opportunity to break the most fundamental rules of the community, because everybody’s living under the eyes of everybody else. So Engels finds this quite attractive and he studies some examples. A number of them are North American, the Shakers and so on. And he’s quite enthusiastic about the Owenites as well. The problem is that the great Owenite final effort to create just such a community, for which a vast amount of money is pooled, fails at exactly this moment in 1844-45. And with it, seemingly goes out the window the entire possibility of socialism being realizable in terms of a small-scale community. So, between 1845 then and 1848, by the time of the Manifesto in particular, Marx and Engels are clearly trying to sidestep the possibility that the failure of communitarian Owenism means the failure of socialism as such. By 1847-8, they move to the view that if socialism is now to be realized, it will likely be revolutionary, first of all—that’s what the Manifesto proclaims—and, secondly, it will take place at the level of the nation-state rather than the small-scale community. Still, Engels, later on in life, has a few complimentary remarks on Owen, Fourier, and company, about overcoming the division of labor between intellectual and manual labor, between countryside and cities, and so on. This is much more pervasively taken up by some other later socialists, William Morris most notably. But, by and large, Marxism after 1845 is oriented towards mostly revolutionary models, usually focused on the nation-state. Having said that, however, if you go back to 1844, of course, if Marx’s critical standpoint is Feuerbach’s conception of species-being: What’s wrong with capitalism is it does not allow us to develop this natural communal impulse that we all possess. He drops the concept of species-being after 1845 and this has caused a lot of alarm amongst Marxist scholars, because this may have been the reason why he never publishes the 1844 manuscripts. If that is the case, then why are we paying it so much attention to today? Can we still legitimately regard it as the entry point into Marx’s system as a whole? That’s a crucial question.
What happens is that Feuerbach’s concept is demolished by another Young Hegelian named Max Stirner, who is an anarchist, an egotistical anarchist, who says, “Oh, species-being is just theology, basically. It is just wishful thinking. It is the last stage of the Hegelian system and we do not want anything to do with such theological concepts.” Feuerbach, of course, is famous for describing religion as a projection of an imaginary ideal community. It is all very amicable and sociable, but what is species being other than, Stirner is suggesting, a projection of our desire to have such harmony in this life? Stirner attempts, in short, a thorough demolition of all such religiously-based, theologically-derived social concepts. So what is Marx left with? If he rejects what is the central concept of the Paris Manuscripts, species being, what does he have? Well, the answer to this is that in The German Ideology, the text that he and Engels sit down and write over the winter of 1845-56 in Brussels. In it Marx says, “Okay, what we’re going to do now is claim an entirely new system. We’re going to call it the materialist conception of history. We’re going to set aside all preceding forms of ideology, morality, religion, metaphysics, socialism and communism, and so on. We’re going to proclaim an entirely new system, and,” here comes the crucial point vis-á-vis species-being, “We’ll not specify the morality of the new society. We will believe it will emerge out of actually-existing social relations.” So, to go back to your question of cooperation, this now becomes absolutely essential to Marx’s vision of the future. Rather than asking, “Is the failure of capitalism the failure to allow us to realize our species-being?” Marx now says, “There exists out there a communist movement. This movement is growing within capitalism. So, we are only describing an empirical process. We’re not using a normative, moralistic precept or judgment, much less a theologically derived precept, to judge capitalism. All that we’re doing is describing a process that now exists.” And Marx then says (and he will adhere to this view the rest of his life), “what the materialist conception of history consists of is an analysis of a series of modes of production of which the latest, vastly the most important, is the capitalist mode of production. In the course of the development of capitalism, very large numbers of workers are driven from the countryside into the factories and into the cities. This is the face of modernity. In the process of engaging with one another in very large numbers in the cities, they will become conscious of the deficiencies of capitalism, they will become conscious of their own homogeneous role as a class, as a proletariat. Once they become conscious, then, they gain a sense of cooperative enterprise, or solidarity, which grows out of the very process of work itself.” So, it is not a norm, Marx insists, being imposed from without, it is something which emerges from the very process of capitalism itself. One of the things I have tried to with the book here is to adjudicate just how seriously we should take Marx’s claim now that there is no existing moral perspective and he has legitimately ditched the concept of of species-being. What I have tried to do – and Marxists will no doubt take me to task for this – is I try in the first instance to describe Marx as utopian. I do not mean the word utopian in the negative or pejorative sense at all. I think utopianism is basically about being able to project into a fairly distant future trends in a given society and then asking the basic question, Is this the road you want to take? Or, are these roads in combination the way we want to move forward? And, if not, if this is somehow failing to allow us to develop our human potential, what can we do about it? So, that’s a really good general question to ask in every situation, and Marx asks it repeatedly. Now, this is the reason why I call him both a utopian and an idealist. There is very clearly a set of ideals present from 1844 onwards right down through the end of Marx’s life.
Marx adheres to the idea of all-rounded development, consistently. That’s his most important critique of capitalism. It does not respect inequality, but the operations of the division of labor. This is the starting point of Owen as well. And, of course, it is the starting point in chapter one, book one of The Wealth of Nations of Adam Smith. And Smith, by the end of The Wealth of Nations, in book five, says – he’s having a kind of conversation here with his friend Adam Ferguson, he uses the example of making pins – “Oh, well, I do realize that if you make somebody do nothing all day long but to cut a bit of wire in order to make pins, they’re going to become as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become.” I’m paraphrasing here. He says, essentially, “People are becoming appendages of machines.” This is one of the great themes of the whole period from The Wealth of Nations right up to the present-day. We’re asking people to become more and more like machines, because machines become our model of efficiency. The problem is this degrades our humanity. So, if we look carefully, then, at the relevant passages in particular in Das Kapital,a text that Marxists usually accord the status of Marx’s most important work, we find exactly the same comments about mutilation, narrowing down and fragmentation of the possibility of human beings developing their full creative personalities, that we find in 1844. This is Marx’s ideal. The ideal pre-exists the critique of capitalism, and it is there right through the end of Marx’s life. I do not have any problems with both diagnosing this as an ideal—a utopian ideal—and commending it at the same time. it is a very humane approach to the problem of being a human being. We’re not very good at imitating machines. It degrades us, mutilates us, renders us vastly less than we are capable of becoming. In that respect, Marx remains absolutely right.
SL: This really turns on the way in which social cooperation is turned against society in production, as well as the whole question of unemployment versus free time in capital.
GC: There’s no doubt that one of the shifts in emphasis that occurs in Marx’s later writings is towards the notion of rather than focusing on the process of production itself, as Marx does in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, we ought to think about enabling the worker, creating a society where the workers possess the capability by having much more free time to educate themselves. So, the shift is away from alienation in production to the notion that free time is where the full creative development of the personality is going to take place. With this comes a certain reluctance, perhaps, to acknowledge that socially necessary labor—producing the commodities that everybody needs—is to remain, at least in the near and immediate future before machines do virtually all of this. People will still be working at mundane, boring jobs that make them unhappy. The crucial point is, until such a time that machines can do this, to minimize the amount of time they have to spend doing this. But both Marx and Engels do say later on, “Well, it is in the nature of the factory system that an authoritarian system of production to be imposed on the workers, because that’s the only way to maximize production.” So that is the shift, but I do not think that it is that dramatic, actually.
SL: The figures that you perhaps downplay in relation to other scholars are the Chartists and Proudhon. And then we should address 1848.
GC: It is not that I do not think these influences are present. And I have written a bit on Chartism and on Proudhon. Of course, through his Philosophy of Poverty, which Marx responds to, his Philosophy of Poverty, Proudhon is one of Marx’s main rivals right through this period into the period of the First International. The Chartists are as such less important for both Marx and Engels than the Owenites by quite a long shot. In my book I had a very limited amount of space, so I explored Owenism more. Most of the Chartists were neither socialists nor revolutionaries. The Chartists that Marx and Engels become best acquainted with are George Harney and Ernest Jones. Both owe quite a bit to socialism, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
As for 1848: Of course, the revolution which occurred in 1848 succeed revolutions which have occurred previously: in France in 1830, but, most importantly, of course in 1789. The difference between the 1848 revolutions, which took place throughout Europe—North and South, East and West, but not in Britain, of course—is that for the first time a socialist alternative was genuinely presented as a possibility of what might follow the overthrow of the old system. Up to this point, the real alternative to the existing systems of monarchy and aristocracy found in different forms throughout Europe was a democratic republic. What 1848 does Marx summarizes very elegantly in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, which is the starting point for most students today. (Those who do not take the Paris Manuscripts as their starting point will begin here, because here we have a programmatic statement of what exactly Marx anticipates.) The Manifesto is a kind of summary of the whole account of the early schools of socialism, of Engels’ confrontations with political economy and of Marx’s economy, an account which here details how a sequential process of capitalist crises will bring about the ever-greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the few: Each crisis will cause more and more small-scale producers to be pushed down into the proletariat and will lead to the rich becoming richer. To go back to the 2008 discussion we had a while back, when he’s conscious that this is the natural development, the rhythm of capitalism itself, the proletariat will now—having acquired, through solidarity and through the process of cooperation, and joined with and forced upon it in capitalism—see that its goal and its aim, its purpose, if you like, in history is to overthrow this system and to replace it with, firstly, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Marx calls it just a few times. Then, eventually of course, comes the realization of communist society. So, 1848 is central for a lot of reasons. The Manifesto summarizes all the key developments from 1842-43 onwards. It determines that all the preexisting forms of socialism and communism are inadequate. It designates under the rubric of the materialist conception of history what the analysis of capitalism will look like and why the new agenda of common ownership—centralization of the means of production under the management of the state, and so on—will take the place of the existing system. So, that’s the model essentially defined in 1848 that will be followed by most in the Marxist tradition right through the end of the 20th century.
SL: But, in some ways, democracy becomes a problem in 1848. After all, Louis Bonaparte is a vindicator of universal suffrage, stages his coup d’etat in the name of it, and is elected on that basis. And so the whole question of the cossack republic issuing into a kind of bonapartist democracy seems to be a political legacy of Marx’s thinking that alluded to with reference to the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
GC: Well, Marx is of course deeply disappointed with the outcome of 1848, but he’s in it for the long run. The crucial question that most people would ask at this point is, is not the dictatorship of the proletariat designed to centralize power in the hands of the new leaders of the communist party? So if we kind of Leninize Marx here, is not the Bolshevism of 1917 anticipated by this kind of discussion on Marx’s part? And the answer to this is, by and large, it is not. Marx remains quite a traditional democrat right through the writings on the Paris Commune. Now, of course he never has to face a revolution, so he never has to face the crucial questions of what if there are splits amongst the communists themselves. What if they take two, three, four routes into the future? What if they assume different factions, and so on? What if leaders arise? Marx says very little about the role of leadership as such. Could it be possible that a small faction would rule dictatorially over the party and the party could rule dictatorially over the whole society? Could it then be possible, á la Lenin, for an individual to become a dictator within the party? And the answer to this is, right through the writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, is Marx remains a traditional democrat. Marx’s view of the interim form of society is that the workers elect their own leaders by universal suffrage. Those leaders are subject to recall pretty much instantaneously and they are, crucially, paid no more than a worker’s wage. This eliminates the ability of a professional political class—now we begin to wonder how over-optimistic Marx was in this regard— and the elimination, in turn, of a professional class of bureaucrats, though we know that the centralization and the management of production of the hands of a few managers implies an extraordinarily sophisticated and complex mechanism being in place in order to do this, more bureaucratic, indeed, than most capitalist societies. But as far as the democratic aspect is concerned, Marx’s phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is very misleading. Marx is really a traditional democrat. | P
Transcribed by Matt Cavagrotti