Socialist Worker

George Monbiot has misrepresented Marx's Communist Manifesto

Colin Barker takes issue with George Monbiot's arguments against Marx

Published Sat 23 Aug 2003
Issue No. 1865

George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist, is always worth reading, even when I disagree with him-over the euro, for example. His recent book, The Age of Consent, gives a damning critique of the modern world. Those key institutions of modern world politics and economics-the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO- work against the interests of the poor world. He offers a programme for fundamental reform.

George argues for an elected world parliament, to replace the undemocratic UN Security Council. He suggests ways to make the world trading system operate to promote, rather than destroy, Third World economies. Agree or not with all his proposals, his book is definitely worth reading for the material he assembles on the current injustices of world power and inequality.

However, between pages 26 and 30, George simply falls off his trolley. As prelude to his main argument, he rejects both Marxism and anarchism as potential solutions to the world's problems.

Committed anarchists can judge his account of their views. But his arguments against Marx are bad arguments which are still found in sociology textbooks. If you're going to attack a position, you should offer something like an adequate representation. But George offers a travesty.

George's target is that socialist classic, the Communist Manifesto of 1848. It contains, in theoretical form, he claims, 'all the oppressions which were later visited on the people of communist nations'. Stalin and Mao didn't 'corrupt Marx's ideology for their own ends'-they rigidly applied it.

Later, George says the economist Lord Keynes 'would be rolling over in his grave were he to see how badly he has been misrepresented'. I'm afraid that we must say the same about George's treatment of Marx. If corpses could spin, we could light Highgate by attaching a dynamo to Marx's grave.

Refuting George in a single column is impossible. For the next couple of weeks I shall be applying myself to this unfortunately necessary task. What does George say? I quote: 'The Manifesto's great innovation and great failure was the staggeringly simplistic theory into which it sought to force society. Dialectical materialism reduced humanity's complex and political relations to a simple conflict between the 'bourgeoisie' and the 'proletariat'.' Note the little insult here, in the word 'reduced'. Nothing like an insult to evade a real argument. What did the Manifesto actually say?

The key force in history, up to now, has been what Marx called 'the class struggle'. It has taken forms in different periods. Here's a famous passage: 'Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.'

In the modern world, Marx continues, the crucial struggle has now become that between the capitalist class and the working class. Marx argued that the fundamental nature of world society was changing. Although still in its relative infancy compared to today, capitalism was becoming dominant, replacing all previous kinds of class society.

That development was crucial to understanding the modern struggle for human emancipation.

Why such a stress on capitalism? It was transforming the very character of human society, and therefore its political possibilities. How? The whole world was being pulled into a single world market. Big industry was replacing small-scale manufacture. Immense social convulsions were occurring.

As great cities were being built pell-mell, millions of peasants were being dispossessed and bigger capital was destroying small artisanal and shopkeeping enterprises. The many small political units of the Middle Ages were giving way to great nation-states.

Was Marx wrong about this? Hardly! It's astonishing, given how early he was writing, how far-sighted he was. The social forces he identified as emerging have indeed become dominant in the modern world.

Capitalism's drive to competitive accumulation means that nothing stands still, production is constantly 'revolutionised'. Every part of the world is drawn into its net. This world, Marx went on to argue-foreshadowing modern ecological arguments by a century-is running out of control. It plunges into regular, immensely destructive crises.

George Monbiot doesn't put capitalism at the heart of his argument about what's wrong with the world today. Indeed, the word 'capitalism' doesn't appear till near the end of his book. He'd quite like to get rid of capitalism, but only after his reforms have been instituted.

But where is the real movement to bring about change to be located? George has no answer. Marx did. The very self destructive creativeness of the modern ruling class has another side: capitalism creates a new working class as part of its own growth. That class offers new hope for human emancipation. Why, we must consider next week.


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What Socialists Say
Sat 23 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1865
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