Yesterday’s opportunism

FRFI 146 December / January 1998 / 1999

Review: Marxism Today, Nov/Dec 1998 Special Issue, £3.50

As the world capitalist system stands on the preci­pice, ideologues of every description counsel its political leaders as to how they should act to prevent a global disaster, anti the social unrest it will bring. Amongst these are some members of the former Commun­ist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who after eight years have just republished its theoretical journal Marxism Today. Not that it has any­thing to do with Marxism: all it offers is a rehash of aged social demo­cratic dogma, replete with appeals for governments to regulate the global financial mar­kets, and to reduce the inequalities that have been a product of the last 20 years of neo-liberal­ism. Tired stuff indeed.

FRFI dealt with this trend many years ago (see ‘New Times, old oppor­tunism’, FRFI 94), showing that their politics ‘codified the standpoint of a privi­leged stratum of the new petit bourgeoisie’ which sought not to destroy im­perialism, but to pacify it. What has changed over the last eight years? Only that the contributors to Marxism Today Mark II are a wealthier, and more openly part of the ruling class, running chat shows on TV (David Aaronovich) or editing national newspapers (Will Hutton, The Observer, Martin Jacques, Independent deputy editor), or writing reglar newspaper columns (Suzanne Moore, Anatole Kaletsky), or even global strategies for insurance companies. Plus a few profes­sors to lend a semblance of academic gravitas. Their role however is to act as a safety valve, transforming con­demnation of the capitalist system into harmless criticism over its lesser aspects. While appearing to be radi­cal opponents of New Labour, in real­ity they support it on anything that really matters.

Consider the arguments of the foremost contributor, Eric Hobs­bawm. In January 1990 he argued that ‘insofar as we envisage a change in the nature of capitalism, it will not, within the foreseeable future, be through a basic catastrophic crisis of the capitalist system, out of which the only thing that can be saved is by revolutionary means…certainly from the 1950s on it’s been quite clear that, for instance, the argument that capitalism is no longer viable eco­nomically disappeared. It’s more than viable.’ His ‘foreseeable future’ was to be a matter of eight years; this year he has had to acknowledge that ‘the crisis which began in southeast and east Asia turning into a global capitalist crisis has suddenly re­minded us how badly capitalism can go wrong’.

But when he qualifies this by saying ‘We unquestionably belong, and will continue for the foreseeable future, to belong to the fortunate minority of countries whose inhabi­tants no longer have to worry about getting their daily bread’, we have to ask who is this ‘we’? Not the poor: Sir Donald Acheson, former government chief medical officer, reported recently that ‘hunger is prevalent in some groups today, particularly sin­gle mothers’, and that it is almost impossible for the poorest working class people to obtain cheap, varied food, He writes of ‘food deserts’, where people living in working class estates have no access to proper food because local shops have been forced out of business and they cannot afford to travel to out-of-town: markets.

Hobsbawm argues that ‘the worst that is likely to happen economically to the British peoples is insignificant by the standards of what can happen, and is happening to two-thirds of the human race. This is also partly due to the fact that we belong to the region of strong and effective welfare states, ie states fundamentally concerned with matters of welfare and social redistribution.’ Whilst it is true that the poverty that affects significant sections of the British working class does not begin to compare with that in Asia or Africa, the reason for this – imperialism – does not enter Hobsbawm’s head, since this is the old-fashioned Marxism which he rejected so many years ago.

The problem, he concludes, is twofold: first, ‘how to control and regulate the operations of a capitalist market economy’ and second, ‘how to distribute the enormous wealth generated and accumulated by our society properly to its inhabitants’, since ‘this the market visibly does not do either.’ Hence, ‘it is time for the Labour government to remember that its major objective is not national wealth but welfare and social fair­ness,’ But Labour in state welfare when it is politically essential. Today it is not. Alistar Darling, Secretary of State, wants to cut bene­fit for single mothers who do not attend job centre interviews in other words, for those who are already going hungry, Snch is the reality of Labour in 1998.

Eric Hobsbawm was once a noted Marxist historian. Nowadays, his sense of history has disappeared. The regulation of a capitalist economy has been the dream of social democrats for the whole of this century. It has proved possible only for the exceptional period that followed the end of the Second World War, and then in only a very limited fashion. Now crisis has become the norm, with the ever-increasing threat of complete collapse. There is no essential differ­ence between what Hobsbawm argues and the other con­tributors to Marxism Today only that they tend to be cruder. Anatole Kaletsky, for instance, develops Hobsbawm’s theme: ‘Capitalism is not about to collapse, because it is an incredibly robust and durable system’, he writes, ‘Capitalism is natural, be­cause, unlike communism, it faithfully reflects human nature …The instinct to own private property, the propensity to truck and barter, as Adam Smith called it, and, above all, the urge to compete, have been the motive forces of eco­nomic activity in every society since Ancient Egypt and China. Capitalism, which gives full vent to these human characteristics, is as nature and irrepressible as sex or religion.’

The real worry of the contributors to Marxism Today that unless there is some regulation of capitalism, some redistribution, the oppressed may rebel; because, in Hobsbawm’s words, they ‘rediscover the downside of capitalism not by reading the [Communist] Manifesto but by observing what it does in practice.’ That practice is epitomised by the actions of the Labour government. The contributors to Marxism Today are united in their belief that Blair’s government is better than the Tories – it is ‘competent, it is compassionate’ (Martin Jacques, editor). Examples of this are supposed to include the Irish peace deal, welfare-to-work, the minimum wage and the adoption of the Social Chapter. As affluent and privileged media workers, they are not on the receiving end of the ‘compassion’ of British army terror, of welfare cuts, of the regimentation that is part and parcel of Labour’s welfare policies. Eight years ago, they dismissed the idea that socialism is an ‘enormous economic almshouse’. We can see why: they have already got theirs – modern-day capitalism. They may wish it to be more pleasant, less prone to crises, but they do not want rid of it, because it is the goose that lays the golden eggs of their privileges.

Robert Clough


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