Marx’s dream does not justify ignoring day-to-day human suffering

One of the recurring criticisms I face when presenting at events comes from those who say they are ‘socialists’ or ‘Marxists’. They accuse me in various ways of being an apologist for capitalism, for offering palliative solutions to workers, which will delay the break down of the system and the revolution to socialism and communism. These critics proudly announce they follow Marx’s solutions and that they reject Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) because it is just a stooge for capitalism. The problem is that Marx had no real vision of how we would transit to Communism. A recent book referred to Marx’s philosophical position on this as a ‘dream’ (more later). And MMT is not specific to any mode of production, by which I mean, who owns the material means of production. It is applicable to any monetary system, and I cannot imagine any modern, technologically-based society functioning outside of that reality – socialist, capitalist or otherwise. But, moreover, the critics seem to be displaying a lack of basic humanity where they exercise reasoning that Noam Chomsky regularly refers to as belonging in a philosophy seminar. Even progressives (and socialists) have to be aware of humanity – as they plot and scheme for the revolution.

It happened again this weekend.

I was participating in the – Resistance Festival – which was held in the UK last weekend. It was a big success.

But in the Q&A, one person stood up and said that I (and MMT) was just a stooge for maintaining Capitalism and that he wanted to overthrow Capitalism and introduce Socialism.

Ok. Good ambition.

But how?

I read a book a few months ago, while I was forced into 14 days quarantine in Melbourne as one of the requirements that allowed me to cross the border from NSW back home into Victoria.

The book – Marx’s Dream: From Capitalism to Communism (published by University of Chicago Press, 2018) – which was written by US philosopher – Tom Rockmore.

If you are familiar with Tom Rockmore’s work, you will know that among other things he has devoted his academic life to is tracing the tradition of – German Idealism – which originated in the work of Immanuel Kant in the late C18 and can be seen to influence the work of Johann Gottleib Fichte, Friedrich Hegel and, in, Rockmore’s thesis, Karl Marx himself.

This is an important conjecture because it is part of a broader thesis that bears on whether there were two Marx – the young and the old or whether the difference between the early writings of Marx and his later published work, really indicates the difference was Marx and his patron Engels.

Tom Rockmore thinks the latter and believed that as Friedrich Engels was piecing together the unfinished material that Marx left when he died, he failed to understand that Marx was actually operating in the tradition of the German idealists.

And if that thesis holds, then Engels developed a version of Marxism, that many modern Marxists hold on to, which was not consistent with the way Marx was actually thinking himself.

What Tom Rockmore believes Marx was on about was “to provide a distinctive new response to the ancient problem of human flourishing” in the context of industrial Capitalism.

In other words, it was a philosophical venture that he thinks Marx embarked on, and, he thinks Marx remained true to that aspiration throughout his career.

Marx’s praxis was tied within the Western philosophical tradition that dates back to Socrates and Plato.

Marx conjectured about the type of society where “human beings … [would] … flourish” and rejected Capitalism as a solution to this end (as distinct from Hegel who considered the system of industrial capital to be “acceptable”).

According to Tom Rockmore, Marx:

… focuses on liberating individuals from the consequences of modern industrial capitalism, hence from the modern world, as a condition of flourishing in communism or a future social phase lying beyond capitalism.

In applying that focus:

Marx believes that private ownership of the means of production does not enable but rather prevents human self recognition, hence human flourishing in modern society.

But did Marx articulate what a communist freedom would look like?

Careful reading of his work will tell you he did not.

There was some mention of a “shorter working day” but not much else.

In the final part of Tom Rockmore’s book – On the Practice of Marx’s Theory, or the Transition from Capitalism to Communism – we learn that Marx also provides little guide to how we might transition from capitalism to communism.

There is mention of a reliance on the proletariat, driven by the leadership of the political class or through economic crisis to accomplish the transition.

Marxian crisis theory really has never come to terms with the modern state with an array of fiscal and monetary instruments available to it to attenuate crisis.

The Leninist vanguard approach led directly to the “dictatorship of the party over the proletariat” and Stalin and beyond. Not very consistent at all with Marx’s focus on human flourishing.

There was also mention of the role that “critical social theory” can play in the transition from capitalism to communism.

The modern practitioners in this field show little interest in exploring economics and a roadmap for the transition.

Taken together, Tom Rockmore uses these examples to argue that “Marx’s dream … [must] … be realized not only in theory but also in practice”.

But how that is to eventuate remains somewhat of a mystery.

Tom Rockmore goes one step further – which I would not be prepared to go (yet) – that Marx’s dream while unambiguously attractive is not capable of realisation.

Which then leads to the next observation that modern Marxists, following the lead given by Engels in the short 1886 book – Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy – construct Marxism has a transition from “idealism”, which cannot be used as a basis to solve real world problems, to Marxist materialism.

Engels believed this is the position that Marx himself held and he points to the “law of historical development” as the authority for this conjecture.

Feuerbach had abandoned the idealism of Hegel and Engels believed Marx had also left the German Idealist tradition behind.

Tom Rockmore considers that Marx didn’t invent Marxist – the doctrine of materialism – rather, that Engels did.

The Marx was not a Marxist is a similar argument that John Maynard Keynes was not a Keynesian (the tradition that followed in his name).

There is a clearer argument that can be made about the latter (dis)-association than the former, however.

So was Marx concerned with thought (philosophy) or being (materialism)?

That is the question that Tom Rockmore’s book considers.

When Marx was buried at Highgate Cemetery on March 17, 1883, Engels gave a famous speech – Frederick Engels’ Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx – where he was very specific:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. …

But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created …

Such was the man of science …

So Engels constructed Marx as a scientist rather than a philosopher.

According to Engels, Marx’s mission was as a “revolutionist … [to] … overthrow … capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being”.

That is a materialist objective.

Of course, people have long debated whether the analogy with Charles Darwin holds, given that Darwin’s ‘law of development’ was hardly deterministic in the way Marxists constructed Marx’s law of development.

And, further, there is no real consensus on what ‘materialism’ actually means in substance.

What are its practical dimensions?

The other interesting strand in all of this literature is the influence of Lenin on the modern conception of Marxism.

Tom Rockmore wrote:

Official Marxism is strongly dependent on Engels and only distantly related to Marx. Orthodox Marxism in both its Russian and Chinese variations can be traced back to Lenen. When Lenin was active, a series of central Marxian texts were not yet available … Lenin, who was unaware of Marx’s more philosophical writings, is strongly dependent on Engels.

What Lenin did, and Stalin followed later, was to merge the principles of “Dialectical materialism … often regarded as the (canonical) Marxist philosophy” and “historical materialism … often taken as the (canonical) Marxist science. Yes”

There is a lot more we can write about all this.

But the practical outcome of this discussion is that Tom Rockmore’s thesis (as given away by the title of his book) is that Marx dreamt of a better future for workers but was unclear of what that would look like save an easier working day.

So when ‘socialists’ stand up in Q&A time and wax lyrical about the evils of palliative solutions to the ills of capitalism and profess a belief in the materialist conception of history I wonder whether they really have considered very deeply what Marx was on about.

Let’s establish some realities.

My work in helping to develop MMT in no way indicates that I support the capitalist production system as the best way to advance human flourishing.

I do not.

In some conceived socialist nirvana, it is likely we will need currency and a currency-issuing authority.

MMT principles will apply just as much then as now.

So by advocating an understanding of MMT principles, we are actually preparing citizens for more desirable future transitions in production modes as well as educating them in the best way to understand the current (capitalist) system that they live in.

That understanding will enhance the voice of citizens in the political process because it will force the political class to answer different questions and standard answers that are given now (“the government hasn’t got enough money” etc) will no longer be acceptable.

That will change society dramatically, already.

But there are two remaining questions:

1. When is the revolution?

2. What should be done before the revolution?

This is the nub of my rejection of the critics that accuse me of being an apologist because I advocate a Job Guarantee, for example, or better health care and public transport and education.

First, that revolution.

Have you seen any signs of it lately?

Exactly what institutional forces are present to facilitate it?

Will there be symbolic or objective violence involved?

Can we justify equipping the cadres with AK-47s to slaughter those capitalist pigs and their running dog sympathisers?

Who will we kill first? Then …

Guns are vehicles of destruction when we actually want to construct a new freedom.

All these issues need to be spelt out.

As I noted above, Chomsky said if praxis was important and change was the goal then spending hours in philosophy seminars debating whether we would be ethically justified in slaughtering capitalists was unlikely to accomplish much.

Who should we be following?

The Jacobites? Lenin and his Vanguard that quickly became repressive – the antithesis of freedom?

And when thinking about these issues, I always remember the 1971 poem/song – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – by Gil Scott-Heron.

The lyrics contain the following refrain:

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Okay, to be live there has to be a plan and action.

But then I think of the counterpoint that is captured in the song – The Revolution Was Postponed Because Of Rain – from one of my favourite bands the – Brooklyn Funk Essentials – which was on their first album (released in 1995).

The band tells us about the status of the black revolution in the US that is constantly being diverted by mass consumerism and all sorts of individual, selfish desires.

We listen to the message:

The revolution was postponed because of rain.
The underlying immediate political socio-economic and trigger mechanism causes
were all in place when
some negro or the other got hungry
had to stop at the McDonald’s
had to get on the line with the new trainee cashier
“uhh, where’s the button for the fries?”
so we missed the bus …

From it we capture the problem of the Left.

The instant consumer delights that capitalism provides continually undermine our sense of purpose and leave us deliberating on what product or another to buy.

“The revolution was postponed because of rain” – because we couldn’t be stuffed going out and preferred to sit at home watching our very big, flat screen TV:

Then the leader couldn’t find his keys
Didn’t want some poor ass moving
His brand new 20″ and VCR
Out his living room on the shoulders
It was too late when the locksmith came

And more:

Now we wait for the rain to stop
All forces on the alert
Some in Brooklyn basements
Packed in between booming speakers
Listening to Shabba Ranks and Arrested Development
Bogling and doing the east coast stomp
Gargling with Bacardi and Brown Cow
Breaking that monotony with slow movements –
Slow, hip-grinding movements
With the men breathing in the women’s ears to
Earth Wind & Fire’s Reasons
And wondering what the weather will be like
Next weekend

The point is that theorising radical change doesn’t produce it.

Many of those in the political economy movement in the past when I was younger would berate me for suggesting full employment was a desirable objective, today, tomorrow, and even the next day.

They would deliver sermons to me at conferences after deliberating over a latte or two, and some jam and croissants, about how the revolution might go.

Most had secure work and were becoming well-paid and had the wherewithal to put deposits down on trendy pads in the inner city.

They spent their time in a philosophy seminar!

I read as much Marxist literature as anyone in my early years. I haunted the International Bookshop in Melbourne as a teenager – reading everything I could get my hands on.

I also spent some time in philosophy seminars!

But as I developed ideas about the monetary system and the interface with the labour market – and experienced the relentless theorising by the Left, the (comfortable) Left in many cases – I came to the view that that a solution within capitalism had to be found because I hadn’t identified any revolutionary armies forming in the suburbs that might overthrow that particular (and pernicious) system of ownership and production.

That understanding didn’t suggest I supported capitalism.

It just reflected the reality that while these revolutionary armies might have been a figment of ideation in the minds of the self-appointed urban guerrilla army leaders, who plotted the revolution in university cafes over coffee, the cold hard facts were that working class people were enduring massive hardships because they were being forced into unemployment as front line soldiers in the government’s fight against inflation.

As time past, we became aware that the natural world was in jeopardy.

Could it wait for the revolution?

So in ordering my priorities I decided the daily human suffering that was before my eyes was more pressing than the revolution which would have to come a bit later.

That is why I came up with the Job Guarantee idea in 1978.

As I became an academic and developed the idea further in the 1990s, I was often confronted with critics – self-styled Marxists etc – who accused me of being an apologist for capitalism because I was proposing what they referred to as ‘palliative care’ for the workers which would lead them to have better lives and reduce their propensity to engage in revolutionary action.

It seemed that these critics wanted the precariat to endure the perils of unemployment and become revolutionaries.

The thesis seemed to be that suffering and desperation was required before we could have a revolution except very few of these ‘political economists’ were on the front line of the precarity.

And I will always advocate policies that relieve the damage that capitalism creates in the workers’ lives and propose solutions that make their material lives better, even if that delays the onset of the revolution.

But then I have never seen any robust research that tells me that such human caring will maintain capitalism indefinitely.

The change in the mode of production through evolutionary means will not happen overnight, and concepts of community wealth and civic responsibility that have been eroded over time, by the divide and conquer individualism of the neo-liberal era, have to be restored.

Conclusion

Let’s be clear.

When the time is right to abandon the capitalist system in favour of a more functional and equitable system that safeguards human potential and our natural environment then I will be one of the first to the barricades.

But until that time I prefer to use my academic position (relatively well-paid and somewhat secure) to advocate policies that will make a real difference now.

I prefer not to use my secure position to drink latte in cafes in an assembly of self-styled progressives and discuss how the revolution will pan out while ignoring the every day reality that people want work and do not have it and are poor and socially excluded as a consequence.

I prefer not to condemn the unemployed to years of this sort of macroeconomic tyranny while I wax lyrical about post-modern interpretations of what Marx said and how it relates to the struggle towards revolution.

Marx’s dream does not justify ignoring day-to-day human suffering