Was Marx a Millenarian?
The Irrationality of Conspiracy Theories.
Was Marx a Millenarian? This accusation was recently thrown at Marx by Andrew Gamble, once a leading figure on the Left until he embraced the politics of New Labour. He is now a professor of politics at Cambridge University.
Gamble’s criticism arose from reviewing Eric Hobsbawm’s latest book HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD: TALES OF MARX AND MARXISM. Eric Hobsbawn is an unrepentant Stalinist and has little or nothing to tell about how to change the world. His politics led to the support for war, gulags and a quick exit from the living. As a left-wing historian he wrote the Socialist Party of Great Britain out of working class history.
Professor Gamble stated:
“Marx’s own millenarian hopes about the creation of a classless society beyond conflict may have proved illusionary” (INDEPENDENT 21.01.11).
Is this true? What is Millenarianism? And is a classless society “illusionary”?
According to Wikipedia, Millenarianism is:
“… a core doctrine in Christian eschatology, with the expectation of the Second Coming and the establishment of a Kingdom of God on Earth. According to prophecies in the Revelation of John, this kingdom of God on Earth will last a thousand years or more (a millennium)”.
Millenarian groups claim that society and its rulers are corrupt, unjust, or otherwise wrong. They therefore believe they will be destroyed soon by a powerful and destructive force. Today, as the internet and the popular press demonstrates only too well, conspiracy theorists see powerful and oppressive groups everywhere; Masons, the reptilian aliens of David Icke’s fevered imagination, Zionists, illuminati, Communists/Socialists, Jewish financiers and so on. And, of course, you have the reactionary conspiracy theorists at the DAILY MAIL; Mel Philips, Peter Hitchens, Richard Littlejohn et al who believe there is a Marxist conspiracy emanating from the BBC, the GUARDIAN and the universities all hell-bent “to change the British way of life”. For an example, see the childish Mad Hatter rant by James Delingpole: “How the BBC fell for a Marxist plot to Destroy Civilisation from within”, (MAIL ON SUNDAY, Sept. 25th 2011).
The recent act of terrorism in Norway, which left 78 people dead, was undertaken by a lone fascist who believed the Norwegian government was also part of a European-wide “Marxist conspiracy”. His 1500 page manifesto is a conspiratorial fantasy of epic proportions. The document, 2083: A EUROPEAN DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is a template for future right-wing terrorism in Europe, a rambling manifesto that at times rails at “cultural Marxists” whoever they are meant to be. He even acknowledged the reactionary writings of Melanie Phillips of the DAILY MAIL as a source of inspiration for his crazed world view of hidden conspiracies quoting her rabid journalism at length. He also cited the opinions, found with monotonous regularity in the SUNDAY TIMES, of another arch-conservative, Jeremy Clarkson, a leading intellectual in David Cameron’s infamous, albeit diminishing, Chipping Norton set.
Such Global conspiracy theorists believe that only a cataclysmic catastrophe will engender change in which a purified new order will be established and true believers rewarded. Of course there is nothing that can be said to a convinced global conspiracy theorist to dissuade them of their irrational view of the world since any criticism ends up forming part of the conspiracy. Global conspiracy theory logically leads to solipsism – the belief that the person holding the conspiracy theory is right and everyone else is wrong and part of the conspiracy.
The journalist, David Aaronovitch has recently charted the history of conspiracy theories in his book VOODOO HISTORIES: HOW CONSPIRACY THEORIES SHAPED MODERN HISTORY (2010). He criticises people who believe in powerful cabals since it obstructs a rational view of the world. Yet Aaronovitch book has a silent sub-plot. His real target in writing the book is not mentioned. For his book is a sneering attack on those who rejected as lies the claims made by Blair and Bush that there were “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in order to justify war.
Blair in fact, went on to ridicule the “conspiracy theorists” who said that the war in Iraq was about oil and not for bestowing Western values of “peace and democracy” on the region by forcibly removing an authoritarian dictatorship with links to al Qaeda. The release of subsequent government minutes showed Ministers and civil servants meeting with energy representatives prior to the Iraq war in 2003 (see http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-04-23/surprise-surprise-iraq-war-was-about-oil and “Blair’s War for Oil” SOCIALIST STUDIES 80).
In 2003 Aaronovitch wrote the following pledge, convinced that the “conspiracy theorists” sceptical of the Bush/Blair justification for war in Iraq were demonstrably wrong:
If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government or that of the US ever again…and, more to the point, neither neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere. They probably are. http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,945381,00.html
Does David Aaronovitch still stand by his pledge? Has he refused to believe the governments of Britain and the UK about the reasons for war in capitalism? No, he is currently a leading cheerleader for the War in Libya on the grounds that it is conflict between “good and evil” rather than for oil interests. Even before the fighting stopped the oil contracts were being signed between the victorious rebels and British oil companies, one with contacts to a Coalition Tory Minister.
Was Marx a Millenninarian?
As for Professor Gamble, is his accusation against Marx correct? Was Marx a Millenarian in the sense of subscribing to a world conspiracy and impending apocalypse? The answer is no. And for a number of very good reasons.
In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels praised the way in which capitalism had developed the power of human productivity:
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, p. 64-65, 1948).
Marx and Engels acknowledged the role of capitalism and the capitalist class in human history. They did not see capitalism as intrinsically evil. In Capital Marx showed that the capitalist had no choice but to behave the way he did under pain of competition in order to remain a capitalist.
The Socialist case Marx and Engels put against capitalism was not a moral one. Instead, they said that capitalism acted as a fetter on the productive forces. It was the impediment imposed by the capitalist relations of production which generated the class struggle, socialist ideas, socialists and the necessity for Socialism. That capitalism is a fetter on production was not an invention of Marx and Engels. They pointed to capitalism’s periodic economic crises with its over-production, destruction of commodities and high levels of unemployment as evidence of capitalism’s historical bankruptcy to meet the needs of all society.
The usefulness of capitalism lay in the development of the productive forces, including social labour. The necessity of Socialism was that within the social framework of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society the productive forces would be able to freely develop to meet the needs of all society; that is, to create the conditions of abundance.
This opportunity was acknowledged by Engels some three decades later in 1872 when writing in Die Volksstaat:
(The) industrial revolution...has raised the productive power of human labour to such a high level that - for the first time in the history of humanity - the possibility exists, given a rational division of labour among all, to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture -science, art, human relations is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and further developed (THE HOUSING QUESTION) www.marxists.org/archive/marx).
Nor did Marx and Engels see exploitation as a secret conspiracy although the generation of surplus value was hidden by the market relationships of exchange. Exploitation under capitalism was not as direct as it was under Feudalism but was a consequence of workers forced, by not owning the means of production, to sell their ability to work as a commodity to a capitalist class in exchange for a wage and salary. Class exploitation was not a conspiracy but existed because the means of production and distribution were privately owned and protected by the capitalist State.
Marx and Engels gave no date for the establishment of Socialism. So far Socialism has not been established by a socialist majority anywhere in the world; neither in Russia, nor in China and nor in the White House under Barak Obama despite the pathetic Sarah “mamma grizzly” Palin and her mad hatter Tea Party red necks would have us believe. Socialism is dependent upon the formation of a socialist majority understanding and desiring Socialism. Until a socialist majority exists capitalism will merely pass from one economic crisis to another with all its attendant social problems like war, unemployment, poverty and social alienation. Unlike Millenarians, Marx and Engels stressed that society changed by human agency –class struggle “the motor force of history” - not by cataclysmic events. Socialist revolution, for example, will take place consciously and politically by a working class “acting for itself”. And the emancipation of the working class from capital will involve “the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex” (Clause 4 DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, Socialist Party of Great Britain).
From Revolting Students to Reactionary Professors of Politics.
Socialism will be for the benefit of everyone not a select minority. The Socialist objective is for production to take place just to meet human need. Yes it will be a classless society but isn’t that more desirable than one riven through with class conflict?
And Marx and Engels rejected both fatalism and determinism. “History does nothing”, wrote Marx, “it ‘possesses no immense wealth’; it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims"
(THE HOLY FAMILY Ch. 6 http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/quotes/index.htm).
In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx sketched out the development of the working class from an incoherent mass to a point where they are able to establish a political party. That historical process has demonstrably happened with the establishment, in 1904, of the Socialist Party of Great Britain by men and women from the working class.
Class consciousness and political action has been undertaken by workers in a Socialist party with revolution and the establishment of Socialism as its sole objective. Surely that is an insight offered by Marx which should be a cause of congratulatory praise not childish insult. And it is a truly positive political insight. That the working class has the potential to free itself from capitalism is one of the most important Socialist ideas over the last two hundred years.
The negative comment by Professor Gamble towards Marx is symptomatic of a belief now held by ex-communists, Trotskyists, and left wingers generally, (many of whom joined the New Labour project with its core belief that the class struggle had been invented by the Soviet Union), that the working class is not cut out for Socialism. The working class are seen as a “mass” to be led by leaders.
There is, for a generation of political activists who once passed through the universities in the 1960’s and 1970’s as “radical students”, the false comfort of political conservatism in old age: the reactionary mantra of: “no alternative to the market, no alternative to capitalism and no agency capable of revolutionary change”. Socialists have never needed intellectuals to produce Manifestos or theoretical tracts. We can think and act for ourselves. We do not need professors doing the thinking for us and nor does the world’s working class.
As he sits in his comfortable chair at Cambridge University what would Professor Gamble make of the young man who wrote in 1976 two highly critical books against capitalism; CAPITALISM IN CRISIS and FROM ALIENATION TO SURPLUS VALUE? Marx, on the other hand, never lost his belief that the working class by its own conscious and political effort could make history.
To conceive of a classless society is not illusionary. What is illusionary is the highly conservative and reactionary belief that society does not change and cannot be changed in a revolutionary way.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.