Saturday, April 2, 2016

Cooking the Books: George Osborne, Paul Mason and Marx (2016)

The Cooking the Books Column from the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Speaking in the House of Commons on 1 March George Osborne called the journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason a ‘revolutionary Marxist’.  To which Mason indignantly replied:
‘As to Mr Osborne’s claim that I am ‘revolutionary Marxist’ it is completely inaccurate. I am a radical social democrat who favours the creation of a peer-to-peer sector (co-ops, open source, etc) alongside the market and the state, as part of a long transition to a post-capitalist economy. There’s a comprehensive critique of Bolshevism in my latest book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.’
Mason wasn’t always a critic of Bolshevism. For many years he was a member of Workers Power, the Trotskyist  group that calls for a ‘Fifth International’ (not that that made him a revolutionary Marxist either, just an insurrectionary Leninist). This may have been what Osborne had in mind. If so, this would be unfair since Mason left Workers Power years ago. In fact during a time when Mason was a Trotskyist Osborne was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club. What is that they say about people in glass houses . . ?
More likely is that, in Osborne’s eyes, anybody who criticises capitalism, as Mason has done, is automatically some sort of a Marxist. But, as Mason made clear in his reply, he is not a revolutionary, but wants only to gradually reform capitalism into something else, as the Labour and European Social Democratic parties used to.
Marx was a critic of capitalism but he had no illusions about it being possible either to make it work in the interest of the non-owning, producing majority or to gradually reform it into something else. He advocated the winning of political power to use this to uproot capitalism and bring in what he variously described as ‘a co-operative society based on the common ownership of the means of production’,  or ‘co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself’, ‘a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common’. In short, the use of political power to carry out such a revolution in the basis of society.
In this sense ‘revolutionary Marxist’ is a tautology, but Osborne will have added ‘revolutionary’ to suggest that Mason favoured violent insurrection as he would know that this is what many people understand by the word. William Morris had already dealt with this as long ago as 1884 when he wrote that ‘the word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use … does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence’ and that ‘we use the word revolution in its etymological sense, and mean by it a change in the basis of society’.
Marx did not analyse capitalism with a view to coming up with policies for governments to adopt. He had no advice to give on this as his analysis showed that there was no policy governments could pursue that would make capitalism operate for the benefit of the non-owning majority. That is why he advocated the working class take political action to revolutionise the basis of society.