Friday, February 04, 2011

Dogma gives Marx a bad name

The merit of veteran Financial Times writer and noted economist Samuel Brittan is that he is not a dogmatist. He may not have all the answers when it comes to today’s crisis. But Brittan believes that summoning the writings or reputations of dead economists to back a policy is hopelessly wrong.

Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat business secretary in the Coalition government, claimed in the January 17 issue of the New Statesman that “Keynes would be on our side”. Two economists promptly called this “foolhardy”. Others, says Brittan, too often cite Karl Marx to justify a view.

“What a reflection all this is on the would-be scientific standing of political economy,” says Brittan who served in Labour as well as Tory governments. He himself was taught by Milton Friedman, the father figure of the monetarist theories of the 1980s implemented by Thatcher and Reagan.

There is indeed no merit in citing what Keynes or Marx (or even Friedman) said at a certain point in history if the aim is to prop up a preconception about today’s world. As Brittan says: “Can one imagine physicists trying to advance their views by showing that they were implicit in some obscure passage in Einstein or Isaac Newton?”

This is true. But any half-decent physicist will know that a modern understanding of the material world would not be possible without the advances made by earlier scientists. Their theories are incorporated into modern physics – not simply rejected as old hat.

So it should be with Marx, a revolutionary communist as well as a political economist. Turning his ideas into a tenet, a dogma to be repeated on suitable occasions, was not the responsibility of bourgeois economists like Brittan. Principal blame for this rests with the Stalinist movement, particularly the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union. They did this to Lenin too, taking a phrase here and a quotation there to provide a rationale for every twist and turn.

Brittan himself is not averse to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, declaring that if Marx were alive today he would be 193 years old and, therefore, no one could know what he would say. This is indisputable; and the likelihood of Marx returning is not even up for discussion.

What Marx left, however, was a legacy of a philosophical method, an approach to understanding constantly changing reality. Marx himself, in the afterword to the second German edition, could do no better than cite with approval a critical review of Capital in 1872:

“The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life.”

This dialectical method enabled Marx to reveal the contradictions inherent with the system of capitalist production. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the continuous drive to global expansion, the inevitable formation of monopolies – these and other scientific laws were expounded by Marx. They naturally need verification through a study of today’s conditions. Rescuing Marx from the dogmatists is essential in our preparation to transcend a capitalism that is in its deepest-ever and most threatening crisis.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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