Marx, Metals and McDonnell
Updated: Jan 17
The first part of this article is written by Anthnony Lipmann
Poor old Karl Marx – he gets such a bad press these days; as of course do Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. You just have to hitch the name of Marx to either for the bogeyman effect to work. This is something that Daniel Finkelstein has done rather well in an article in The Times entitled ‘Marxist McDonnell is no laughing matter’.
In 18th Century Britain, little children were told by their parents to be good and go to sleep in case Napoleon came and got them. Imagine now the fear if you mentioned Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell might pop round.
The problem with Marx is that he is everyone’s bogeyman – and so his name may be lazily attached to almost anyone and any subject to the left of centre with great effect. You do not need to be a Marxist to be disturbed by this. Marx, for example, said somewhere that if his ideas were ever put into practice he certainly wouldn’t be a Marxist. In other words he did not want to be his own bogeyman!
What I would like to do in this short article, which is inspired by the fact that my colleague, Lord Copper, forwarded me Finkelstein’s article, is to touch on who I personally think Marx was and what his ideas have meant to me.
It seems a shame, that to call someone a Marxist today is sufficient to summon up the most extraordinary image in the middle-class mind. When I was at University, it was quite usual to be studying in close proximity to fellow students who might have a Marxist view of the world. On the English course this might mean being a follower of Terry Eagleton’s writings or Raymond Williams’ interpretation of 19th Century English Literature. If you wanted to carry your interest a little further you might go to an evening ‘Left Caucus’ meeting in a college basement on the subject of ‘Troops Out of Northern Ireland’, or carry a poster and go on a march against the latest loan to Wadham College by the Shah of Iran’s sister. This was the left in practice at student politics level. Politics was at least as important as whatever subject you were studying – our young minds were exercised by injustice.
Perhaps I am stretching a point, but it could be said that ‘a Marxist’ is no more than someone who is either interested in, or indeed critical of, the ideas of Karl Marx, and intrigued by the man himself; the one who struggled in penury writing his great work, Capital, in 19th Century Soho, the rent man for ever at the door, his children dying of consumption, while his furniture was removed by the bailiffs. He fascinated me and he was for sure one of the great thinkers of the modern era – and, for that alone, we should be interested in him. He was a great thinker and whoever said thinking was a bad thing? Perhaps we do not do enough.
Marx was writing in London because he thought the great industrial beast of Britain was ripest for revolution. He was convinced that it would take place on the dockyards of the Clyde, where the downtrodden shipbuilders were tough and exploited and certainly did not own the means of production. It is not difficult to see why he thought this, but I am fascinated by his error and how it illuminates what is so interesting about Marx, and how his thought became transmuted into everybody’s bogeyman, known as Marxism.
I remember reading The Communist Manifesto for the first time in my teens, and then later in life, and on each occasion thinking to myself ‘This? This started all that?’ For anyone reading about the ‘hobgoblin’ slouching towards us, you would know that this was polemic, argument, dissertation, dialectic. What is was not, and at 14 years old I knew it wasn’t, was a blueprint for a new society. If you are Jewish, as I am, you would also simply recognise the Jewish method of argument, disputatious pamphleteering, argument for argument’s sake, such as I am indulging in now.
The puzzle is to ask why The Communist Manifesto, and Capital, were adopted as blueprints for a new society, and why was it that Russia became its first incarnation?
My theory for this, which is partly based on my Eastern European travel, is the simple observation that the Slavic people are more communal by nature. It was the very communality of old Slavic society, beneath Tsarist oppression, which was the fertile ground that allowed Marx’s theorising to be so macabrely adopted, as if it was a guide to the London Underground. Even today, in my interactions with older Russians or Poles, brought up under the communist system, a residual belief in communality pertains, an idea of what communism could have been, and these same people feel cheated by its embodiment in the hands of Bolshevists and Stalinists who used Marxism as their hymn book with such dreadful consequences.
Marx’s basic principle – and it needs airing as much today as then – was that communality was the means to allow groups to share the fruits of their labour for the profit of the community rather than the individual.
Now, however naïve this ideal might sound today, after it was hijacked by apparatchiks, embittered Lenin, psychopathic Stalin, and lead booted human systems; however much Marx’s ideas were turned into a religion without a god, to a mechanism with which to condemn vast numbers of people in the Slavic world to perverted dictatorship; however Marx’s writing became a guide book for intolerance and the tool of despots – still, when I read parts of his writing I can feel sympathy with the anger that he felt at a capitalist system that so exploited the weak.
So it is that Daniel Finkelstein, in his Times column may sneer at McDonnell and cite Marx’s largely unread tomes as an epithet with which to disparage a politician who dares to raise issues with regard the imperfections of capitalism.
But, dear reader, read just a few lines of Marx’s descriptions of 19th Century industrial working life, where children are taken from their beds, white and pasty at three in the morning, to be sent down the coal mines and you will realise you are in the presence of a writer almost as great as Dickens; one who was motivated and sickened by the same injustices. They both wrote in anger, and their contemporaneous writings are, to me, the most humungous exercises in anger management in history.
In Dickens’ case, it was transmuted into the vast gallery of all life and characters who became part of stories that pitted the young against the sickening stench of capitalism in its rawest forms. Who, having read Dickens, cannot have been revolted by the system at work – undiluted capitalism – that could give us characters such as the snarling, snide and sneering Quilp, the obsequious, sycophantic Uriah Heep, and miserly, exploitative Fagin, the pompous certainties of a Gradgrind – always characters set in power over the weak – orphan children, young women, at the mercy of a world that would use a child or young woman’s work for monetary gain.
You might think that quoting those two near contemporaries, Marx and Dickens, is an abstruse way to defend Mr McDonnell. But just how far in our modern world do we need to travel to find the same issues that exercised Dickens and Marx?
It turns out that if you are in copper, tin, gold or tantalite – not so far at all. In fact, I would ask, who among our number of metal merchants, miners, LME speculators, is not in some way or other standing on the shoulders of the weak – those in developing countries, still on wages and in conditions that both Dickens and Marx would recognise.
You think I am exaggerating? Well then let me ask specifically how many of you reading this article are connected in some way to the disaster that is the Un-Democratic Republic of Congo, the poorest, most lawless, country in the world, where the warlord and the artisanal child miner are handcuffed together by poverty.
The anger management of Dickens resulted in the cornucopia of story and prose, the same anger kept Marx writing in his cell in Soho, with his personal life in tatters and his body collapsing into ill-health, in an heroic attempt to reform society’s ways, invent a new system, try to redress the baronial power of….Capital.
Modern supporters of capitalism would perhaps defend it by stating that it is the one true way in which to unleash the human spirit of enterprise. Could Google or Microsoft or Apple ever have been created in The Soviet Union, you might ask? But as societies rattle around in the 21st Century in a rather disturbed state, it might not be unwise to look back to Marx to find some answers, or at least some questions.
The one thing that every defender of capitalism will tell you is that every exploitative trick is OK, every rapacious need to succeed in business is fine because in the end your success will be shared – via tax. But what happens, then, when that half of the equation is not as efficient as it could be. In other words, what happens when large corporations find it only too easy not to pay tax.
For me much of what is wrong in our society, as much as the metal trade, comes down to this issue of tax – what we put in the pot for the common good – the roads, schools and hospitals. Right now, we know how easy it is for large corporations to site business in low tax regions and route electronic orders away from high tax jurisdictions. In our metal trade, all too many of our number reside in such locations, whether it be Zug or Singapore, from which it is possible to make largely unaccountable forays into developing countries, transferring wealth from poor to rich, while allowing work to take place in 19th century conditions.
So, when McDonnell and others are motivated to talk about bringing in money from global corporations who are not paying their dues he has my entire support. If he likes to describe himself as a Marxist in this endeavour it is just fine by me. And, interestingly, he is not so far apart from Theresa May who has described global companies as ‘being everywhere but resident nowhere’. Those avoiding tax today are the most corrosive element in our society for they reduce the pot for the common good.
Call McDonnell a Marxist but if capitalism is to survive it needs to be made much more accountable to the law. In 2012, at Dickens’ bicentenary, one of his heirs, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, wrote: ‘The essence of almost all Dickens’ writing was the belief that those with money, power and influence need to take responsibility for those who are disenfranchised. Imagine how different our societies could be today if this belief was genuinely put into practice.’
This part of the article was written by Lord Copper
Mmm… When you appear as a witness in an English court of law, the punch line of the oath you are required to swear is “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” We probably tend to think of the first part being the nitty gritty, and perhaps gloss over the other two requirements. I would suggest that in his piece above, Anthony has stuck with parts one and three, but part two has somehow slipped under the radar.
This debate started when I sent Anthony an article from the Times, written by Danny Finkelstein, which was headed by an image of shadow chancellor of the exchequer, John McDonnell, addressing a crowd while standing under a red flag complete with hammer and sickle, and a flag of the Syrian Ba’ath party (for the avoidance of doubt, because middle-eastern factionalism can be confusing, that’s Assad’s party – he of barrel bombs and the like). We’ll come back to that.
Where I agree with Anthony is that Marx was indeed a philosopher, a man interested in the inequalities of nineteenth century society, with ideas that could have improved the lot of many. Like Dickens; again, I agree.
I’m not sure about the Slav versus Western European as the reason why the revolution happened in Russia, rather than the UK, as Marx had postulated. I think the reasons are different.
Through the second half of the nineteenth century, there was social progress in the UK. After 1832, successive Representation of the People Acts (notably 1867) widened the electoral franchise – I fully agree, very slowly: after all, it didn’t become truly universal until 1918 – but there was movement. Likewise, trade unionism was moving industry – slowly, slowly – towards a more responsible position.
For all the vicious mill owners, there were also Frys, Cadburys and the like, whose more enlightened views were gaining wider recognition. Progress was being made, helped enormously by the fact that the economy of the UK was succeeding spectacularly. True, most of the new wealth – but not all, which is the important point – stuck to the fingers of the aristos and bourgeoisie, but the fact is there was a lot more money circulating.
Contrast that with Russia. It’s true that in 1861 Alexander II “freed the serfs”, but actually, that edict made little difference (serfs were not actually technically slaves, so the emancipation was more about words than reality). Add to that a class of aristocrats who behaved with less feeling for their “inferiors” than that shown by the French a century earlier, a disastrous mess in the First World War and a secret police and military who were more than ready to shoot those who questioned whether the system was really fair, and I suspect that all these factors probably played a greater part than an inbuilt slavic desire for communality. Could be wrong, though.
I would be inclined to suggest, given that his name was raised, that Dickens actually had a better grasp of the reality of nineteenth century Britain than Marx did, and saw that incremental progress was in fact the more rational development, rather than violent revolution.
What Marx begat, though, was a raft of -isms that sprang from his thinking. Communism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, and undoubtedly others, all of which originate in the essential opening gambit that private ownership of things is wrong and assets should be held communally. In our trading terms, Marx’s thinking was the underlying, and the -isms were the suite of derivative products. Now, Marx stressed “communally”, but that hasn’t worked, and wherever it’s been tried, the net result has been that the assets in fact end up owned and controlled by the state. And for “the state”, let’s be honest and read, “a small cadre of party members”.
We should probably look at the score card here. Stalin? Lets’s say 30 million plus. Mao? Similar, say another 30 million. Pol Pot? Coupe of million. Fidel and Hugo? Small beer, really, but then they had less to work with. That’s not just a score card, by the way. That’s lives. People killed by their rulers because they didn’t agree with a political ideology. Now, I’m sure Marx had no inkling that this is what his philosophising would lead to, but that’s where we are. Incidentally, it’s probably also worth noting that free-market capitalism has been lifting millions out of poverty globally for a long while now. It’s not perfect, but what is?
I agree with Anthony that taxes should be paid, but there are a couple of points here. First, we should remember that tax is not a system for the redistribution of wealth; it is the means by which society pays for the services, the infrastructure and so on that it deems necessary.
Secondly, the inhuman labour conditions in, for example, some Congolese mines are more to do with corruption than tax. Yes, there is a linkage, but while corruption is rife, the issue won’t go away. Frankly, the easiest way to make people pay their taxes is to remove the loopholes they exploit. And the easiest way to do that is to simplify the tax code; the simpler it is, the more difficult it is to find ways around it. Sadly, finance ministers across the world have for years thought themselves cleverer than they are, and they have tinkered again and again, creating unforeseen consequences that do nothing but make the problem get bigger and bigger.
But just like the incremental social progress I referred to in the nineteenth century, I would suggest that ultimately the greatest pressure on tax-dodging will come from shareholders. Just as it slowly dawned on nineteenth century landowners that they would have to grant a voting franchise more widely, so we will see ethical pressure from shareholders continue to build – free market capitalism in action, again.
So, to come back to McDonnell and that photograph. He has subsequently said that he was not aware of the flags on the platform; well, google it yourself and see. I would suggest that one would need to be seriously visually impaired to be unaware of flags that size in one’s immediate vicinity. And then, if a thirty second google search will find clips of you saying “I make no bones about it, I’m a Marxist”, it’s pretty stupid to go on TV (Andrew Marr, 7th May) and when asked the simple question, “Are you a Marxist?” to say “No”. You see, Anthony, nobody wishes to avoid discussion, debate or conversation. But if one side takes the view that truth is infinitely flexible, then it becomes rather difficult. We’re in the middle of an election campaign, though, and McDonnell is canny enough to understand that Marxism doesn’t play well in the broadly centrist UK; but hey, we’re in a post-truth era, aren’t we, so why be constrained by silly things like facts? After all, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, as George Orwell told us in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. By the time he wrote that, by the way, Orwell – another great thinker – had fallen out of love with the derivatives of Marxism he had espoused a decade earlier.
I have no time for Donald Trump, but he’s not the first person to think about walls. There used to be one across the continent of Europe. But this one was to keep people in, not out, like Trump’s. And if they weren’t put off by the wall, and tried to cross it, guards with guns were there to shoot and kill them. They wanted to leave the Marxist state and go into the free market one.
We live in a world where you, Anthony, and I can disagree substantially, yet still be good friends, precisely because we can talk about ideas. I’ll leave you with a quote from Chris Mullin, former Labour MP, and therefore colleague of McDonnell: “One suspects, however, that behind that affable exterior he is drawing up lists of those to be shot on Day One of the revolution.” I know – sadly – where that will leave me and our ability to continue our discussions……… Idealism is fine, but if it always leads to the same place – camps and firing squads, which is what the twentieth century tells us – perhaps the ideal is the wrong one.