Earthly ideal is a most niggling dream

January 13, 2006

John Gray says neocons should take note of philosopher and historian Leszek Kolakowski, who warns against Marxist utopian fantasies

The master died 122 years ago. He lived in the age of steam; never in his life did he see a car, a telephone, an electric light. His admirers argue that it doesn't matter: his teaching is just as relevant now as it was in the 19th century because capitalism is still here, which apparently means that not everything has been made state property.

Yet nearly all Marx's predictions were wrong, including the idea of progressive class polarisation and the disappearance of the middle classes. Kautsky remarked that if this prediction were untrue, all Marxism would be in ruins. Kautsky was right, and the prediction was clearly wrong: the middle classes have continued to grow, while the percentage of the industrial proletariatJhas shrunk. Also his prediction concerning the absolute pauperisation of the working class was wrong, which most later Marxists knew.

Marx also predictedJthe collapse of capitalism as a result of a consistent fall in the profit rate. But this has not happened. This prediction was unlikely even in Marxist terms (technical developments that lower the part of variable capital in production costs also lower the value of constant capital, so the profit rate can remain stable or increase even if the amount of work required to produce a given product declines).

Marx also expected that the market economy would hamper technical progress.

But it has proved very efficient in stimulating technological progress, while socialism has been inefficient or stagnant in this respect.

One of Marx's major predictions was a proletarian revolution, but it never happened. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia may have given power to a party professing a Marxist doctrine, but it was not driven by a conflict between industrial workers and capitalists, and it was carried out under slogans such as "peace" and "land for the peasants", which were neither socialist nor Marxist. The closest to Marx's idea of proletarian revolution is perhaps the Solidarity movement in Poland - and this was directed against a socialist state and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.

As for the so-called "materialistic interpretation of history", it implies in its rigid version that social development depends entirely on changes in the "modes of production", which, in turn, necessarily result from changes in the instruments of production, and that religion, law, philosophy, etc have no history of their own, and all cultural life is nothing but an instrument of the class struggle. This is an absurd dogma. "Historical materialism", in a weaker form, says only that the history of culture must be seen in relation to social conflicts and political struggles - a platitude, even though it has mainly become one thanks to Marx.

Moreover, the labour theory of value has no explanatory power as there is no link between value and price and we cannot measure the value of any product in terms of the amount of labour needed to create it. This theoryJhas no economic meaning; it cannot predict or explain anything.

On the most burning issues of contemporary civilisation Marx's theory is not much help. On ecological questions he offers little more than a few romantic platitudes about the unity of man and nature. There is nothing about demographic problems other than that, according to Marx, overpopulation in its absolute sense cannot occur. As for the problems facing the Third World, Marx's theory is useless. Both Marx and Engels had a strongly pronounced Eurocentric mentality; they had nothing but contempt for non-European civilisations, and they praised the progressive effects of colonialism and imperialism (in India, in Algeria, in Mexico). The idea of national self-determination was a matter for derision for Engels.

But what Marxism is least capable of explaining is the totalitarian socialism of the 20th century that trumpeted Marx as its prophet. Many Western Marxists said that this system had nothing to do with Marx's theory and was the result of specific conditions in Russia. But if this were so, it is hard to see how so many people in the 19th century, especially anarchists, could have predicted as accurately as they did what socialism based on Marx's principles would be: state slavery. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued that the Marx's ideal was to make human beings state property. According to Mikhail Bakhunin, Marxian socialism would be based on worse exploitation and oppression than capitalism. According to Edward Abramowski (a Polish anarcho-cooperatist), if communism by some miracle were to hold sway in contemporary society, it would increase class divisions and exploitation. Such predictions were made decades before the Russian revolution.

Were those people clairvoyant? No, one could clearly see in Marxism the seeds of its Leninist and Stalinist offspring. It would be silly to say that the prophet's intention was to build a gulag or that Marxism produced 20th century communism; this came about from a series of extraordinary accidents. But Marx's theory was not innocent: it contributed strongly to the emergence of totalitarianism and served as its ideological basis. It anticipated the universal nationalisation of everything, including the nationalisation of human beings. And it was Marx, not Stalin, who said that the entire idea of communism could be summed up in a single phrase: the abolition of private property. If so, the worst forms of 20th century communism - the regimes of Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot - wereJcommunist in Marx's sense, since they did indeed abolish private property.

Does this mean that Marx's works are not worth reading? Not at all. His work has been an important part of 19th and 20th century intellectual life, a living part of European culture. Similarly, we ought to study the works of Freud even if we know that his theory of civilisation is utterly wrong.

One of the causes of the popularity of Marx among educated people was the fact that when reduced to its simplest form it was easy; even Jean-Paul Sartre noticed that Marxists were lazy. They liked having one key that opened all doors, one universally applicable explanation of everything, and an instrument that allowed one to learn in an instant the entire history of mankind and economics without ever studying either. Marx had a powerful mind and was a learned scholar, but only a fifth of his writings were published during his lifetime. The many texts published posthumously belong to the 19th century intellectual heritage.

We cannot understand our civilisation without including Marx in its history. Of the numerous socialist utopias none is as consistent, as elaborate, as rooted in historical and philosophical wisdom as the Marxian one. Utopias are both necessary and dangerous to our civilisation. They are necessary because dreams about human fraternity make us morally and intellectually better people. But they are dangerous if we believe that there is any technique that can make a utopian fantasy real.

Communism, in the sense of community of goods, is possible in small groups.

Communism was perhaps first practised by Jesus's apostles, who held all things in common. The community of goods was adopted by some monastic institutions and in Israeli kibbutzim. All these forms differed from totalitarian communism in that they were voluntary. The dream of institutionalised fraternity is a blueprint for a concentration camp.

Life in the capitalist world is dominated by greed and envy. This life, with all its repugnant and detestable facets, is much better than life in a compulsory fraternity.

Leszek Kolakowski is author of more than 30 books and 400 other writings.

He was awarded the first John W. Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress in 2003.

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