Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Zeitgeist and ‘Marxism’ (2013)

From the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Zeitgeist Movement, founded in America in 2008 by Peter Joseph and Jacque Fresco, stands for a worldwide ‘resource-based economy, which in many respects resembles what we called ‘socialism’ (and, if pressed, ‘communism’): the Earth’s resources would become the common heritage of all humanity and be used in a rational way to provide what people need and to which they would have free access without money; and calculations concerning production would be done solely in units of resources and not duplicated by monetary calculation, as today.

The Movement’s opponents have also noticed a similarity and have denounced Zeitgeist for propagating ‘Marxist Communism’, still a powerful swear-word in the US. ZM’s response, in a new guide to their orientation just published on the internet, is to insist that they are not Marxists (see This is true. They aren’t. While they are scientific materialists and do see humans as adapting their social arrangements in the light of changing economic and technological conditions, they do not see the agency for these adaptations as some class pursuing its material class interest.

Referencing the Communist Manifesto of 1848, they acknowledge that the goal it advocates is a ‘stateless and classless society’. (Curiously, they omit ‘moneyless’ even though the Manifesto speaks specifically of ‘the communist abolition of buying and selling’.) But they go on:
‘On the surface, reformations proposed in TZM’s promoted solutions might appear to mirror attributes of ‘Marxism’ if one was to completely ignore the underlying reasoning. The idea of a society ‘without classes’, ‘without universal property’, and the complete redefinition of what comprises the ‘State’ might, on the surface, show confluence by the mere gestures themselves …. However, the actual Train of Thought to support these seemingly similar conclusions is quite different. TZM’s advocated benchmark for decision making is not a Moral Philosophy, which, when examined at its root, is essentially what Marxist philosophy was a manifestation of.’
Continuing the same theme, they say ‘the Marxist notion of a “classless society” was to overcome the capitalist originating “inhumanity” imposed on the working class or “proletariat”.’

They then expound their own approach:
‘TZM’s advocated train of thought, on the other hand, sources advantages in human studies. It finds, for example, that social stratification, which is inherent to the capitalist/market model, to actually be a form of indirect violence against the vast majority as a result of the evolutionary psychology we humans naturally possess. It generates an unnecessary form of human suffering on many levels which is destabilizing and, by implication, technically unsustainable.’ (Their emphasis)
So, unless all they are concerned about is that capitalism is ‘technically unsustainable’, they too want to overcome the ‘indirect violence’ and unnecessary suffering that its ‘social stratification’ imposes on the ‘vast majority’. So let’s not argue about who is more scientific than thou.

Is ‘Marxism’ really a ‘moral philosophy’? What, in fact, is ‘Marxism’? Is it the views of Marx the individual or the system of thought that Engels called ‘Scientific Socialism’? It is true that in his earliest writings, just after becoming a socialist at the end of 1843, Marx’s approach was philosophical rather than scientific. He denounced ‘political economy’ and ‘private property’ for resulting in the treatment of the ‘proletariat’ in a way that was contrary to the ‘species-nature’ of humans. This could indeed be interpreted as basing the case for socialism on a ‘moral philosophy’ –a view of how humans should be treated but weren’t.

However, while Marx never abandoned his indignation at what the working class had to suffer under capitalism, he soon ceased to base the case for socialism on a philosophical theory of human nature. Already in the Communist Manifesto he was criticising other German Socialists for not seeing socialism as the movement and outcome of the struggle of ‘one class with another’ but as representing ‘not the interest of the proletariat, but the interest of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.’

As Engels was later to put it, in Socialism Scientific and Socialism, based on something he had written in 1875:
‘Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms, existing in the society of to-day, between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production.’
Socialism was a class issue, not a mere moral issue; it was when this was recognised that socialism ceased to be ‘utopian’ and became ‘scientific’.

Engels’s pamphlet was in effect the founding document (much more than the Communist Manifesto) of what has come to be called ‘Marxism’ – though not by Marx himself. Marx was right about this, as the term suggests that socialist theory was the product of ideas thought up by one man, whereas, in fact, being a reflection of an on-going struggle built-in to capitalist society, it would have developed even if Marx and Engels had never been born and stands independently of whatever they may or may not have said or done. But inadequate as the term is, we are lumbered with it.

So, when, in their criticism of what we will have to call ‘Marxism’, ZM go on to say the following, they are in fact expressing a view shared by Scientific Socialism:
‘TZM is not interested in the poetic, subjective & arbitrary notions of “a fair society”, “guaranteed freedom”, “world peace”, or “making a better world” simply because it sounds “right”, “humane” or “good”.’
They go on:
‘Rather, TZM is interested in Scientific Application, as applied to societal sustainability, both physical and cultural. …. The Method of Science is not restricted in its application to the “physical world” and hence the social system, infrastructure, educational relevance and even understanding human behavior itself, all exist within the confines of scientific causality. In turn, there is a natural feedback system built into physical reality which will express itself very clearly in the context of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t over time, guiding our conscious adaptation.’
Apart from the language, Marx had said something similar in 1859 in his well-known outline of the materialist conception of history in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in particular:
‘Humanity always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve: indeed, on closer examination, it will always be found that the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.’
In other words, as long as a social and economic system is ‘working’ there will be no pressure to change it. Marx identified the pressure for change as arising when a contradiction developed between a newly emerging way of organising the production of the wealth of society and a social and political superstructure reflecting an earlier technico-economic basis; the agent for change was a class that organised and benefitted from the new method and which would engage in a struggle with the old ruling class for control of political power. Technico-economic changes made a change of society necessary but the agent of change would be a specific class rather than the members of society in general that Zeitgeist seem to be suggesting

The same applies to the change from capitalism to socialism where, according to Marx, the agent of change will be the majority class of wage and salary workers and their dependents struggling against the entrenched minority capitalist class for control over the means of wealth production.

Insofar as ZM reject the class struggle they can be acquitted of the charge of ‘Marxism’. However, as they stand for the Earth’s resources becoming the common heritage of all, they must be found guilty of standing for ‘Communism.’
Adam Buick

Come to bury not to praise (1995)

Book Review from the April 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lenin: Life and Legacy by Dmitri Volkogonov (Harper Collins 1994. £25.)

The author of this 500-page book is a high-level Soviet Army officer who from the mid- 80s held the post of Director of the Institute of Military History and in August 1991 became Defence Adviser to President Yeltsin. Initially trained as a philosopher and historian, he researched and wrote a biography of Stalin in 1985 which found some disfavour in the military hierarchy, reinforced in early 1991 by his "un-Soviet" views in a history of World War Two.

Despite his education and clear critical intelligence. Volkogonov accepted Lenin and Leninism as the pure foundation of the Russian Soviet State which had somehow become sullied and debased in its later progression to the horrors of Stalinism. As he writes: 
"For twenty-five years after the Twentieth Congress (1956) the Russian people asked themselves where Stalin had acquired the cruelty which he inflicted on his fellow countrymen. None of us—the present author included—could begin to imagine that the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian, was Lenin."
With the breakdown of the Soviet monolith in 1990 and its release from the Communist Party stranglehold, immense quantities of previously secret historical archive material became available for researchers. This has enabled authors like Volkogonov to produce more detailed and more fully documented biographies and other historical accounts than has been possible for the past seventy- five years. The result in this case is a devastatingly solid indictment of Lenin and Leninism.

With a wealth of detail the author describes the chilling and almost unbelievable fanaticism with which Lenin drove himself and his colleagues, firstly to seize state power and then to retain it at all costs. He traces the sources of this obsession with power and its unfettered and brutal use to three main factors. The execution of Lenin's elder brother, implicated in a political assassination plot, the influence of 19th century Russian revolutionary terrorist writers, and Lenin's totally lopsided grasp of Marxism from which he retained only those few aspects which appealed to him. Nothing of Marx's humanity nor of his writings on the future intellectual freedom of men and women; nothing except violence, force, and yet more force, including outright terror if that could serve a purpose. With this background firmly established. Volkogonov goes on to show how all the horrific and well-known features of the Stalinist period had their origins in Lenin; the fact that Stalin was personally vindictive whereas Lenin’s cruelties arose as impersonal expediencies is here irrelevant.

Two other interesting and informative sections of the book deal with Bolshevik finances in the early days and with the "sanctification" of Lenin after his death. Many potentially embarrassing records dealing with German financial support during the First World War were of course destroyed. but the author has collected sufficient evidence to give a clear picture of the very substantial support the German government gave the Bolsheviks to help them take Russia out of the war, thus freeing troops which could be switched to the western front. The Bolsheviks naturally did all they could to conceal this German link.

The second item, the mummification of Lenin's body and the parallel ossification and crystallisation of his thoughts and methods, forms a quite fascinating chapter. The painstaking trouble and enormous expense devoted over decades to the preservation of Lenin’s body in a “viewable condition" are positively mind-boggling in their mediaeval stupidity, except of course when viewed from the standpoint of the cynical hierarchy who manipulated the whole charade to maintain their political dominance.

For almost seventy years after his death the preservation of Leninism was the accepted and necessary mainstay of all who clambered to positions of power; and the careful use of selected phrases from his writings or speeches was the common tactic adopted to dethrone opponents or to entangle those accused of anti-Soviet activity in the endless treason trials of the 30sand 40s. It is ironic that in the very society which proclaimed that its Marxist theory was not a dogma but a living, flexible, "dialectical" guide to action, in reality the power elite set Leninism in concrete for the greater part of this century and defended its rigour with a devotion of which a mediaeval churchman could have been proud.

All this will, of course, come as little surprise to socialists who have from the outset recognised that Lenin’s 1917 Revolution, as an attempt to impose socialism by dictatorship and coercion, was doomed to fail. Utopia, unlike Mao’s political power, did not materialise from the muzzle of a gun. despite all Lenin’s cold-blooded steely determination and his party’s control and use of every weapon of coercion. Volkogonov does not indulge in any political theorising, but his book provides powerful support for the view that the building of a socialist society will be possible when the majority of the workers understand and desire such a change. All the guidance by"revolutionary vanguard" parties with "infallible” leaders like Lenin at their head can never be a substitute for a self-reliant working class.

Lenin: Life and Legacy should help those still blinded by the Soviet myth to follow the disturbing path of intellectual awakening already trodden by the author himself. In his own words :”As a former Stalinist who has made the painful transition to a total rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism, I confess that Leninism was the last bastion to fall in my mind".
Cyril Oldfield

Cooking the Books 2: Footballers’ wages (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
When last December Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, suggested that limits should be placed on the income of professional footballers, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said that he wouldn’t be against a limit on all incomes but would be against applying this just to footballers:
“You can’t say that a sportsman should have a limited amount of income but a banker should get a £15 million bonus as he’s a stockbroker who make a lot of money . . . We live in a world where the richest 50 people own 48 per cent of the riches of the whole earth. But do we just limit the salaries of footballers who normally come out of poor backgrounds  and you normally need special qualities to be a strong footballer?” (Times, 31 December).
 It was a fair debating point, but economics is not about who is the most deserving of a high income. Bankers, stockbrokers and other fat cats who award themselves huge bonuses are indeed useless parasites. Because they control a capitalist business they are able to siphon off, at the expense of other shareholders, a part of the profits for their own personal benefit in the form of a bloated “salary”.
Footballers at least start from the same position as the rest of us: not owning any wealth from which to obtain an unearned income, to obtain what they need to live they have to go out on to the labour market and offer their mental and physical energies for sale. Most professional footballers, working for clubs in the lower divisions or for non-league clubs, never earn anything more than the average worker.
But some, those who play for the first teams of clubs (rather, businesses) in the Premier League, are paid fabulous amounts of money, by working class (if not capitalist class) standards. What is their income? Is it wages? Not really. It’s more like rent. Rent is paid whenever there is a natural monopoly in something that cannot be increased, normally land, mineral deposits, waterfalls and other natural features that can be employed in production. The rent of land and natural resources is essentially fixed by the paying demand for it. The higher the demand, the higher the rent.
As Arsène Wenger pointed out, “you normally need special qualities to be a strong footballer”. It is these “special qualities  which are a sort of natural resource that cannot be increased  that enable the best footballers to command so high an income, but as rent rather than as the price for the mere sale of their labour power. Their income is so high because the demand for their talents is so high, Premier League football being Big Business with, thanks to television, a huge market.
Wenger was right to draw attention to the fact that we live in a world of inequality. That is a natural consequence of the workings of capitalism. Socialists want a world of equality, but this is not one where everybody has an equal income. On the contrary, it would be a world where nobody had a monetary income, large, small or equal, but where everybody would have an equal say in the way things are run and an equal right to satisfy their needs. And one in which, while there would still be (amateur) footballers, there’d be no bankers or stockbrokers.

General Engels (2009)

Book Review from the February 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

John Green: Engels: a Revolutionary Life. Artery £10

Engels is often seen as playing very much second fiddle to Marx. But, as John Green points out, he brought to their partnership a greater first-hand familiarity with working-class life and capitalist production and commerce. While not as readable as Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx, this book is still both interesting and informative.

Before reading Green, I had not properly appreciated how much military experience Engels had. In 1848-9 he took part in the ‘revolutionary’ (in fact democratic and anti-Prussian) uprisings in the Rhineland, seeing action on several occasions. These events led to his long interest in military matters, to his being named as military adviser to the Paris Commune, and to his nickname (among Marx’s daughters, for instance) of ‘The General’. They also resulted in the Prussian government’s naming him as a wanted man, and eventually to his decision in 1850 to work in the Manchester office of the firm part-owned by his father.

From his previous time in England had come his famous work The Condition of the Working Class in England. Now Engels was forced to work in the company office, though he managed to live a double life, one as a businessman and one as an activist with his companions Mary and Lizzie Burns. While formally an employee, he received a share of the firm’s profits (over £1000 in 1859), much of which he forwarded to Marx, and on his death he left the then-tidy sum of £25,000.

Green makes an interesting observation to do with the German word wissenschaftlich. This is usually rendered in English as ‘scientific’, as in ‘scientific Socialism’, but it can equally well mean ‘theory-based’, which has fewer connotations than ‘scientific’.

This would have been a better book if Green had simply chronicled his subject’s life and ideas. Unfortunately, his Leninist sympathies have induced him to include some observations that are at best superfluous and at worst downright misleading. He starts off badly by comparing Engels to Che Guevara: two good-looking young men from well-off families who supposedly took the side of the oppressed.

Engels’ military ideas helped Trotsky, Mao and Che, it’s claimed, and the League of Communists, which he joined in 1847, worked on the basis of democratic centralism, which later became a cornerstone of Leninist parties. The Bolshevik concept was in fact far more centralist than democratic, and Green just ignores Marx’s and Engels’ insistence on workers liberating themselves, a principle rejected by Leninists and all would-be leaders.

So a mixture of a good biography and some dodgy political pleading.
Paul Bennett

A Bit Iffy . . . (1998)

TV Review from the January 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Years ago Channel Four used to run a much acclaimed (and for that matter, much derided by some) late-night live discussion programme on Saturdays called After Dark. For those who didn't see it, it was an open-ended programme whereby seven or eight invited guests sat in comfy leather chairs discussing matters of grave importance or, sometimes, of the utmost triviality. It typically ran for three or four hours, until the guests started repeating themselves, somebody got upset or somebody else got drunk (in this respect at least it was just like real life).

On Saturday 29 November Channel Four began a new mini-series of studio discussions called the Big If . . . Discussing the same sort of topics as After Dark typically addressed, and in the same late Saturday night slot, it lasts only an hour and is heavily edited in parts. Given the contributions made in the first programme, however, this is entirely understandable.

The subject matter, interestingly enough; was What If Marx Was Right? Frankly, this is a topic which no TV programme can hope to cover adequately in an hour minus two advertising breaks, and needless to say, this programme did not cover it adequately at all.

It would seem a bit of a prerequisite that the studio guests should be familiar with the subject under discussion. Would they ask someone who knew nothing about religion to discuss ecumenical faith? Someone who hadn't been to school and couldn't read and write to discuss issues affecting modern education! Of course not. But that didn't stop them inviting a couple of guests onto this programme who had quite evidently never read a word of Karl Marx in them life.

One particular guest claimed that technology was solving most of capitalism's problems, even though he didn't seem to think there was such a thing as capitalism anyway and who didn't care much about its problems and those who suffered because of them. If he had read anything at all written by Marx he disguised it brilliantly. Another guest— an historian of sorts—was able to demonstrate that he knew lots about the old dictatorship in Soviet Russia but next to nothing about Marx or genuine socialism.

And then there was Paul Foot of the SWP. He is, as my mother would say, a nice man, but that alone does not make him a socialist, and his attempts to defend state planning and control through weasel words and euphemisms were transparent and reprehensible. For such a lucid writer and journalist he often demonstrated a peculiar inability to explain concepts basic to the Marxian position in clear, unambiguous terms, and this despite the fact that he has written some books on the subject which are at least in part, not all that bad. He had been little better on the previous week's Question Time.

Another guest on the panel was Susan George,, famous for her books on Third World poverty andl development politics. Her interventions criticising the market economy were more lucid and telling, but her prescription for its, supersession vague and inoffensive, about people alII over the planet already “doing things for themselves”, whatever that means. (For one thing it carries the unhelpfuI connotation that it stands opposed to the idea off people sometimes doing things for others).

The token neo-Marxist psychologist present provided a good coherent critique of the capitalist economy without suggesting anything nearly as coherent by way of replacement for it. It was left to journalist Charlotte Raven to hit the nail on the head, repeatedly. Raven took the closest thing on offer to a Marxist position and as a result was somewhat marginalised in the discussion. She was, nevertheless, the only guest to state openly that capitalism could not be reformed to work in the interests of the majority, that it was past its sell-by-date in all its various forms and incarnations and should be replaced by something which sounded fairly close to genuine socialism. We can only hope that her interventions are not going to harm her journalistic career with the Sunday newspapers.

Hopefully the programme might have given her a few ideas for articles. One could be on the same theme as the programme itself—was Marx right? Even more importantly, are those who stand in the Marxian tradition right today when we say along with him that capitalism is a system dependent for its survival on the exploitation of the many by the few, that it is a system which creates artificial scarcity, which is racked by periodic world crises and wars and which must be overthrown through democratic socialist revolution? And if Marx's prescription of a moneyless, stateless world community is not the way forward, what is? After she has written it she might post a copy of her article to the other panellists who will then be better informed in case they should be asked to appear on any such programme again.
Dave Perrin