What is Wrong With Marxism Today? A Polemic

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

In this post, I will attempt to identify a number of in my view underappreciated or insufficiently recognized problems in the main modes of inquiry of Marxism today – in particular in the Marxism common in Western countries, where it is dominated by the activities of academics and small party formations, sectlike or otherwise. These points cannot be but generalizations, and as the Dutch saying goes, ‘whoever fits the shoe should put it on’. Nonetheless, I hope that in discussing these issues it will open up some room for more critical reflection not just on our present conditions on the left, which is perhaps weaker than it has been at any point since the early 20th century, but also on the methods used in the process of transforming a Marxist understanding of the world into politically applicable ideas and praxis. In order to keep these as clear as possible as conceptually distinguishing closely related issues will allow, I will simply present them as a series of points. Continue reading “What is Wrong With Marxism Today? A Polemic”

The Spirit of ’45?

Leftwing filmmaker Ken Loach has launched a movie and corresponding campaign in the UK called “Spirit of ’45”. Already avidly promoted by the usual union and Labour left figures, the purpose of the movie is to have working people speak on behalf of the social-democratic achievements of the 1945 Labour government, and what these meant for them. This was the government that radically expanded and restructured the British social system, transforming it from a country of austerity conservatism into one of the main bulwarks of social-democracy – the pinnacle of course being the introduction of a healthcare system wholly free at the point of use, unprecedented then as it indeed still is now. Many left-leaning British people understandably have a certain pride in these accomplishments, and the Labour Party has been coasting on them in its claims to working class loyalty for practically all of the postwar period (“party of the NHS”). The purpose of the corresponding campaign is to revive this sense of pride and loyalty towards social-democracy, presumably in the hope that this will strengthen popular resistance against the attempts by the current conservative-liberal coalition to privatize swathes of the NHS, reduce or abolish elements of the ‘welfare state’, and generally to force market exchange where there was redistribution.

As a purely defensive campaign to mobilize for genuine reforms away from the basis of capitalist social relations, that is the mediation between working people through ‘free’ markets, and in favor of some manner of organized and collective solidarity, this is fair enough. Yet the spirit of ’45 is a ghost which, once conjured up, may turn out to do more than haunt the conscience of the coalition. The spirit of ’45 is first and foremost the spirit of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an idealized past of Labour governments and miners in caps speaking at union rallies. This makes it, as many of the commentators on the right promptly pointed out, little more than an extended political broadcast for the Labour Party. And this shows its limitations: not only would the Labour Party of Ed Miliband probably unrecognizable to the members of Attlee’s cabinet, but anyone whose political horizon is wider than that of Labour has little reason to be enthused by this. Continue reading “The Spirit of ’45?”

The Many Forms of Kenneth Rogoff: A Study in Neoclassical Economics Today

The opposition to austerity worldwide has been much strengthened by the loss of academic prestige incurred by the austerity camp in the field of economics. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, both prominent neoclassical economists at Harvard University, were revealed to have made serious data errors in their influential paper on the history of public debt and its relation to economic growth. In this paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, the authors had argued that when “gross external debt reaches 60 percent of GDP”, a country’s annual growth declined by two percent, and “for levels of external debt in excess of 90 percent” GDP growth was “roughly cut in half.”(1) This has been widely seen as a major intellectual support for the austerity drive worldwide, and therefore the denouement of this paper has had a considerable impact. Not only did the paper leave out important data, but it also contained simple errors in spreadsheet calculation. This is all the more intriguing, and delicious for the press, because the counter-article’s co-author Thomas Herndon is still a graduate student, whereas Rogoff is one of the world’s most eminent neoclassical macroeconomists. Continue reading “The Many Forms of Kenneth Rogoff: A Study in Neoclassical Economics Today”