The left must go back to its roots—but modernised Marxism is not the answerby James Purnell / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Workers of the world must unite, says the former Labour cabinet minister—but not for the reasons that Marx or Engels believed they should
In January, the world’s pre-eminent living Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, publishes a new book, How to Change the World (Little, Brown). It’s a collection of old essays striving to make two new points: that capitalism is as much in crisis as communism; and that (therefore) Marx and Engels merit re-examination. He is wrong on the first point, but right about the second. And this is not just a historical curiosity, but central to political debate on the left today.
First, the recent credit crunch was not a crisis of capitalism; it was a crisis of western financial markets. Capitalism is doing perfectly fine in China, India, Brazil and Germany. Moreover, totalitarianism was just as much the cause of the credit crunch as capitalism. It was the democratic deficit in China and elsewhere that created the savings glut which tornadoed through the US property market. Were China fully democratic, workers would be able to claim their rightful share of their productivity; Chinese consumption would increase and its savings ratio would fall. If this had been replicated from Singapore to Dubai, there would not have been a mountain of cash for western banks to chisel into subprime-backed phantom financial assets, sparking the crisis.
Hobsbawm claims that economic and political liberalism “cannot provide the solutions to the problems of the 21st century.” Yet a bit more political liberalism in China and economic liberalism in Africa is precisely the solution to many of their problems. Some free trade unions and the right to worship wouldn’t go amiss, either.
And the problem with the “Washington consensus” which Hobsbawm attacks was not that it was liberal, but that it was so extreme: implying that markets must not be interfered with and that, for example, African countries should charge for public health or education. Compared with this, no country in Europe has ever been part of the Washington consensus. In England in 1844, Engels found “everywhere barbarous indifference, hard selfishness on one side, unspeakable misery on the other, everywhere social war.” But by the 1970s, as Hobsbawm says, “the objectives of reformism had been achieved, and workers were incomparably better off than even the most optimistic representatives of reform could have imagined before 1914.”
Social democracy in Europe triumphed during the last century; so…