You Will Believe!

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

Murders, attempted genocide, purges, famine and political paranoia, fear and various other forms of calamity were certainly produced in communist regimes, with many of those evils apparent today in the last state vestiges of the ideology. But blaming the Communist Manifesto for them ignores the importance of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and all others who interpreted the book, recognised its youthful impracticality and set off to redefine a movement in their own terms.

In its final issue of 1999 the Economist actually recognised something of the position I’m taking here, pointing out that:

It has been Marx’s misfortune that what he wrote as a tract for the times has been taken (by his supporters) as eternal truth or (by his critics) as an attempt thereat. But the Communist manifesto was in fact rushed out to try to rally the forces of the proletariat in the “year of revolutions”, 1848.

Context really does make a difference. Without the comparison to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, history comes rushing in.

Yet in 2002 the same magazine laid down a long, meandering argument that because Marx’s most substantial economic ideas had been discredited – here differentiating overly generalising conclusions from the intense analysis of works such as Capital and Grundrisse, his ‘predictions’ necessarily remained unrealised. The conclusion? That Marx had founded a faith.

Out with history again.

But why is it so easy for the Economist to toss out context and paint Marx as a bumbling failure? Because it allows the publication and its core readers to grab easily at the higher intellectual ground. I was once assailed by a die-hard Economista with the ‘enslavement’ argument as I was re-reading Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy – a book only one of us has read, I should add. If the Economist says it’s so then it must be so, and the occasional morsel of critical analysis – without a by-line, as usual – ‘proves’ the ethereal case.

And, of course, there’s one final sticking point, which made possible the 1999 concession to history but was also the carefully inserted prop that held up the critical 2002 article. In October 1999 the BBC released the results of a popular poll on the last millennium’s greatest thinker. Beating Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton into second and third places was – you guessed it – Karl Marx.

For the always elitist die-hard Economista, the masses truly are revolting.

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