Tuesday, May 20, 2014

David Farrar discovers communism

David Farrar is one of New Zealand’s better-known political commentators, as well as a pollster for the National Party and an advisor to John Key, but his grasp of political history seems rather uncertain.
In a recent post to his blog, Farrar reproduced several passages from the ‘original 1872’ text of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, and drew parallels between them and statements by New Zealand’s Labour Party. Farrar said that the passages from the Manifesto were sent to him by a reader of his blog.
It is hard to believe that either Farrar or his anonymous helper has ever looked at the Communist Manifesto with any care, because the text was written not in 1872 but nearly two and a half decades earlier, during the revolutionary year of 1848.
As a young journalist in Germany, Marx both reported on and encouraged the uprisings against absolute monarchs and dogmatic churches that began in February 1848 and spread across Europe and into Latin America. By the end of 1849 the so-called ‘springtime of the peoples’ had given way to a winter of reaction, and Marx had been forced into an exile that became permanent.
Although it did not achieve a mass readership for many years, the Communist Manifesto had been aimed at the revolutionary movement of 1848, and includes a list of demands for ten reforms, like the creation of a heavy and progressive income tax and the establishment of a system of free education, that Marx and Engels wanted the revolutionary movement to echo. These demands were intended to create a bridge between the Europe of 1848 and a socialist future.
David Farrar’s interpretation of the Communist Manifesto is not much more reliable than his dating of the text. He apparently sees the Manifesto as a blueprint for Stalin’s Soviet Union, and assumes that any parallels between Marx’s text and Labour’s statements must be a terrible embarrassment to David Cunliffe. 
But the Communist Manifesto is not a simple blueprint for any latter-day political movement or state. It is a fascinating and in many ways very contradictory text, which is capable of making both the left and the right uncomfortable.
To read the Manifesto itself, as opposed to some summary or parody of it, is to be confronted with the tremendous complexity, creativity, and instability of Marx’s thought.
Conservatives who venture into the Manifesto are often surprised to find that much of its opening section is given over to a paean to capitalism. Marx celebrates the dynamism of capitalist industry and the spread of capitalist markets, and alludes favourably to the penetration of societies like India and China by the capitalist West. His remarks about the 'idiocy and backwardness' of rural life and his celebration of industrial technology, which causes 'everything that is solid' to melt 'into air', make the Manifesto a classic document of modernist thought.  
But Marx’s praise for capitalism is mixed with a vision of the system’s contradictions and limits. Marx modelled the Communist Manifesto on his favourite play, Goethe’s Faust, and he makes capitalism, like Faust, into a heroic character who ends up doomed by a mixture of hubris and fate. In the story that Marx tells, capitalism’s dynamism leads it into crisis, as the products of its factories struggle to find buyers, and as the working class it has created begins to organise across borders.
It is easy enough to find mistaken predictions and misplaced optimism in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s vision of an international working class revolution, for instance, has gone unrealised, partly because the national and religious differences which he thought capitalist expansion would destroy have persisted. 
But Marx was prescient, as well as over-optimistic. In the middle of the nineteenth century capitalism had only recently begun to spread out of its stronghold in northern Europe, and only the tiniest fraction of the world’s population was employed by capitalists. The global trade networks and trade unions that we take for granted today were almost unthinkable. It is no wonder that, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a new generation of intellectuals is exploring Marx's vast and tangled oeuvre. 
Scholars like Teodor Shanin and James D White have argued convincingly that the mature Marx moved away from the heroic vision of capitalism and contempt for pre-capitalist societies that are a feature of the Communist Manifesto. In 1871 Marx watched the world’s first working class revolution, the Paris Commune, fail to spread through Europe, and felt acutely disappointed with the continent. In the remaining twelve years of his life he spent thousands of hours studying peoples like the Russians, Javanese, Iroquois, Arabs, and Polynesians, who lived on the fringes of capitalism, and made a series of statements expressing solidarity with the efforts of these peoples to resist colonisation and the break-up of their communally owned lands.
In a preface to the Communist Manifesto written in 1882, the year before his death, Marx argued, rather tendentiously, that the text had not been intended as a prediction of the path that capitalism would take everywhere in the world, but was instead a record of the way the system had developed in Western Europe. He also stated that Russia, which was at the time still a largely pre-capitalist society, could avoid passing through a stage of capitalist development and build socialism directly on agrarian, communal foundations, if it got help from a socialist Western Europe. The elderly Marx’s positive view of peasant Russia differs astonishingly from his earlier celebration of the destruction of pre-capitalist societies by colonialism.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, when Keynesianism ruled supreme in the West and advocates of market liberalism like Hayek grumped from the fringes of political life, it was common for social democratic politicians to dig up the list of short-term demands Marx included in the Communist Manifesto and claim that most, if not all, of them had been achieved as a result of Labour governments. In the twenty-first century, though, the Labour Parties of countries like New Zealand and Britain are less ready to align themselves with Marx’s most famous text.   
A number of David Farrar’s readers used his post as an opportunity to brand the Green Party as a ‘commie’ organisation, but it is surely hard to connect the likes of Metiria Turei and Russel Norman to the Communist Manifesto. Where Marx’s text celebrated economic expansion in almost febrile language, the Greens have talked about a ‘limit to growth’. The young Marx’s support for the colonisation of non-capitalist societies sits uneasily beside the Greens’ support for Maori land claims and the Treaty process.
The Communist Manifesto has a complexity that defeats attempts at cheap political propaganda. David Farrar might want to consider reading the text before he blogs about it again.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Capital is the historical unfolding of the body of Christ and must thus be ritually sacrificed.
- Politkommisar Oulanem

12:34 am  

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