To be a dinosaur
17 October

Dinosaurs lasted 26 million years. They came in every size and shape and all the colours of Joseph’s coat. So, when Imre Salusinszky in 1997, and A. C. Grayling a decade later, dismissed me as a “Marxist dinosaur”, I sighed “If only…” My accusers also reveal their ignorance of dinosaurs which are far from extinct. Only the terrestrial ones went extinct. The avian ones are all about us, brilliantly coloured, rhapsodically musical and dazzling in their aerial acrobatics. Who wouldn’t be a dinosaur?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the toadies chorused: “Marx is discredited”. To which Marxists replied: when, and for what, did your crew ever give him credit? Das Capital had been “discredited” in 1896 by Eugen von Bohn-Bawerk’s Karl Marx and the close of his system. Since then, thousands of books have reasserted the close of Marxism, without understanding either Marx, or this early critic.

The relentlessness of their onslaught has not been aimed at Marx but at depriving proletarians of our keenest intellectual armoury. From nowhere else can we learn the three keys to capitalism: one, class struggle is waged every second of every day - at work, asleep and at play - to maximise the exploitation from capital’s purchase of labour power in units of labour time; two, this exploitation means there is no such thing as a fair day’s pay; thirdly, the state enforces this exploitation.

Capitalism keeps Marxism creditable. For as long as capitalism is around, Marxism is in no danger of extinction. Meanwhile, media blather about a swerve back to “socialism” by bank nationalisations and welfare spending is as ill-informed as was its “discrediting” of Marx. Hence, those of us who need Marxism in current battles spurn both versions to remain clear about what Marxism can and cannot offer.

First, Marxism is a sub-set of historical materialism, the one which explains capitalism. Historical materialism, in turn, is a sub-branch of materialist dialectics. The Neo-Darwinian synthesis is another. Because both inquire into aspects of our species, some of their concepts and evidence overlap, but they are neither substitutes for each other, nor can one suborn the other. Marxism has nothing to say about the extinction of dinosaurs and Darwinism is silent on the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Secondly, Marx’s analysis of capitalism is specific to that mode of production, and not cannot be extrapolated onto pre-class societies, or even to slavery or feudalism. Yes, what Marx and Engels revealed about the structured dynamics of capitalism is rich with insights about how one might investigate other systems of class exploitation, but those clues are side benefits, not a matrix.

Thirdly, Marx provided only the starting place for understanding capitalism. His insights are essential but never sufficient. We must continue their investigations, as Lenin did in the late 1890s to determine whether a proletariat was emerging in Russia. To do so, we must remain critical about what Marx, Engels and Lenin uncovered. What matters is not what they “really” said.  The point is whether their analyses were true at the time, and, more importantly, do those elements relate to capitalism now.

One feature of Capital are the passages which splotlight every twist in the current unraveling of capital. Those quotable quotes are valuable not as evidence for his prescience but only as indications of how Marx integrated such behaviours into his account of the il-logic in the expansion of capital.

How can Capital still be crucial 140 years after its publication? The answer is not that Marx was smarter than Adam Smith. His advantage was that he lived through the establishment of modern capitalism whereas Smith had died before the proletariat appeared.

Unlike Smith, Marx did not write “political economy”: he critiqued it - as he did aesthetics, anthropology, history, philosophy and theology. Unless Marxism remains critical it becomes a nullity. One performance enhancer would be for Gillard to ban it from the education system. However, for as long as Marxists cleave to “class struggle”, “exploitation” and the class bias of the state, we won’t need bourgeois agents like her to keep us subversive.

We can remain socialists without being any kind of Marxist. Few socialists have ever been Marxists and most never will be. But you can’t stay a Marxist without being a socialist.