Marx ‘Wins’ a Vote

Marx Comes First, And Looses


So, Marx has come first yet again. Marx has been voted ‘The Greatest Ever Philosopher’ for a BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, following an online poll taken over five weeks. The show, one of the most respected intellectual shows on radio, offered the public an open vote on the 10 greatest philosophers. Marx polled 28% of the vote, easily outstripping second-placed David Hume with 13%, followed by Wittgenstein (7%) and then Nietzsche (6.5%). This has clearly excited a lot of people on The Left, with commentators being trawled out to bear witness to Marx’s relevance, his insights into globalisation, or why philosophy should take Marx seriously. In all cases an air of jubilation presides: what better proof of his importance, that Marx wins the BBC poll for the greatest philosopher. Continue reading “Marx ‘Wins’ a Vote”

‘True Spies’

‘Honest, Guv – we ain’t no subversives’

Sadly, that’s the truth.

Last night [written 28 October 2002] on BBC2, True Spies, the first in a series on the extent of the infiltration by state agencies of organised labour and the Left from the late 1960s. We were told that the State realised in 1968 that its intelligence was inadequate as a result of the ferocity of the demos outside the American embassy against the Vietnam War. One response was to establish a special unit whose members went into deep cover for years on end, with new IDs – they were known as the ‘hairies’ because they would grow their hair long in order to ‘go native’. The programme consisted of contemporary news footage and interviews with activists, ex-infiltrators and an ex-Special Branch senior officer.

Tariq Ali – then leader of the International Marxist Group, a leading force in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – was told that someone who must have been a close friend had copied his keys to burgle the offices of the IMG. His comment was:
‘A form of fundamentalism – you are prepared to use all your energy to further your political aims .. This is amazing, I just felt betrayed.’
This struck me as a stunningly naïve remark, as at that time Ali was a proponent of Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary party, whose cadres would behave in precisely that way. A common term for an infiltrator is ‘mole’ – the name of the IMG’s paper was The Red Mole. I wonder how the name-change from earlier The Black Dwarf came about, I wonder if the infiltrator had a sense of humour. Continue reading “‘True Spies’”

Zikek on Lenin

Unpubl. Letter to The London Review of Books on Slavo Zizek.

‘Lenin and Lacan eh ? wot a pair – fnaar, fnaar!’: as a Viz character might say. Indeed, Slavo Zizek’s review of d’Encausse’s book on Lenin reads like a parody out of an upmarket Viz. He offers a classic hack defence of Lenin, spiced up with references to various bourgeois cultural dissidents whom Lenin himself would have despised (Bataille, Junger, Oshima, Lacan).

It is clear that, for Zizek, Lenin figures entirely as a symbol. He tells us, following d’Encausse, that Lenin destroyed the ideas of his opponents, but not the opponents themselves. The anarchists murdered by the Cheka, and the Kronstadt dissidents slaughtered by the Red Army might well disagree. Continue reading “Zikek on Lenin”

The Central Image in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’

The Telescreen and Bentham

So many accounts of Nineteen Eighty Four miss much of what is distinctive about it; namely that is not just in the abstract about ‘government control’, but is a very particular satire on British Stalinism during the 1940’s, which yet draws one of its central motifs (the telescreen) not from the USSR but from the bourgeois writer Bentham, via Dostoyevsky via Zamyatin. The motivation of the rulers in that world is actually the self-conscious joy in the exercise of power, which merely uses the State as the best instrument for this. Further, in that book, the inhabitants of it are not known by numbers (I originally wrote this as a response to a blog-post on why it is thought dehumanising for persons to be identified by numbers). Continue reading “The Central Image in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’”

The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist

E P Thompson, regarded as one of the greatest of the ‘British Marxist Historians’, argues that the model of base and superstructure is essentially inadequate:

This metaphor from constructional engineering .. must in any case be inadequate to describe the flux of conflict, the dialectic of a changing social process … The model [i.e. base/superstructure] has an inbuilt tendency to reductionism..( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79).

( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79.)

Marx and Engels did use the term ‘superstructure’ in The German Ideology (For example, MARX/ENG German, p 57). However the terminology of base/superstructure attained the status it had in the marxist tradition through its use in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This text itself attained its canonical status through Engel’s review of it in Das Volk, August 1859, there ‘Engels invented dialectics, the progenitor of unresolvable ambiguities within the Marxist tradition’. (CARVER Marx & Engels, p 117, and Ch 4.)

An immense load has been place upon this text, more than is justified by the remark in it that its propositions have been ‘a guiding thread’. (MARX 1859 Preface, p 181) For example, G A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History is almost entirely devoted to defending this text, and it quotes the ‘substantive’ portion of this, beginning with the words ‘In the social production of their life ..’ as a frontpiece. What is remarkable and important here is that this Preface was composed by Marx entirely for tactical purposes and, as such, cannot be taken as a serious statement of his position. Continue reading “The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist”

A Tradition We Must Renounce

A short while ago I came across a note in a socialist historians’ journal from a sixties student ‘radical’ reflecting on student politics then. It helped me to crystallize why I loathe everything about that tradition, whose pale embers are still all about us.

Here is a representative selection from that letter:

We protested; … we burnt an effigy of a British passport … We held discussion groups and Marxist theory classes … Many of the women at those meetings later made national contributions to the women’s movement and equal opportunity. … our generation carries a light .. for radicalism.

The actual – as opposed to the rhetorical – way in which sixties’ radicals related to workers was as manipulative and patronizing as that of the despised Fabians. They mouthed phrases about workers’ power, but this was never about real workers; it was about the tame pets of their own imaginations. Sixties’ student radicals were proud to be ‘vanguardists’. It was they who told people what they “really were” and where their interests “really lay”  Continue reading “A Tradition We Must Renounce”

Marxism Against Equalism

Callinicos on Equality

Alex Callinicos, Equality, Pluto Press, London, 2000

David Murray and Mark Neocleous, Radical Philosophy, No 109, Sept/Oct 2001

Between 1994 and 1998 the wealth of the richest 200 people in the world grew from $440 million to $1042 million; the latter sum is equivalent to the income of 41 per cent of the world’s population. Following Noberto Bobbio’s hugely influential claim that the distinction between left and right centers on the idea of equality, many of the left have argued that the response to global problems such as this is to demand equality. In this book Alex Callinicos joins them. The result is not only a disappointing book, but one which is also symptomatic of the current paucity of thinking on the left.

In this book Marx is presented alongside Tawney and Crosland as providing the traditional socialist agenda concerning equality. The presentation of this triad works in a highly deceiving way. Because Tawney and Crosland wrote arguments for equality, lumping them together with Marx has the effect of encouraging the view that, as a tradition, they were all after the same thing. But nothing Callinicos says here about Marx justifies the view that Marx was somehow ‘for’ equality.

Continue reading “Marxism Against Equalism”