Monday, August 6, 2012

If Marx was wrong, can Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters be right?

Stop reading now if it seems like this article is going to attack the leadership of the EFF personally or go on about how Marxism killed millions of people and what a terrible thing that was. It is not about that.

Karl Marx was an extraordinary and original thinker.  He wove many of the radical intellectual ideas of his day into what he and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels held was a scientific explanation of history and socialism. In the nineteenth century, very many clever people thought that science could explain, even solve, every problem eventually.

Speaking at Marx’s graveside in March 1883, Engels made clear that both men saw their ideas as proven beyond argument. He called Marx ‘the man of science’ and declared: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’

The law of development of human history? Discovered it?

Among Marxism’s many contentions, two are foundational. One is that capitalism is destined to destroy itself through its own contradictions; the other is that history is not just random events randomly following one another, but a process. History is something working itself out.

If these assertions are true, if history is a predestined process, there is no reason why ‘capitalism’ - whatever we understand by the term - is not on course to destroy itself along Marxist lines or for some other reasons we cannot foresee. It could be - and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. On the other hand, if history is not predetermined, then there is no reason why the fate of capitalism is sealed. People in that event are not puppets and there are things they can do about it.

In the years since Marx’s death, and not only in Europe but across the entire globe, observation and experience, the two basics of science, do not support his predictions. In spite of two hugely destructive world wars, the great capitalist powers survived or later recovered; more significantly, new world players are now following their example; one mass impoverished industrial class has not emerged; the state has not withered away; and capitalism has gone through repeated crises, but each time come through.

The leaders of the EFF, like all revolutionaries, are entitled to point out that is only true so far. But the fact that they have come to rely on prophecy shows that they cling more these days to faith than science. No science showed Marx had discovered, much less proved, a ‘law’ shaping human history. Even if such a law existed, science does not explain why its presence would have been vouchsafed, without experiment, to Marx alone, especially as his own thinking as a member of the bourgeoisie should have made that, by his own theories, impossible.

Human conduct is not reliably measurable or predictable and even if it is predictable in some respects, as some behaviourists would argue, experiments never manage to place it beyond doubt. Local circumstances always vary enormously and laboratory conditions are practically impossible in a world that is in a permanent passage of change. That is why psychologists and sociologists are guarded in saying how people will behave as individuals or in groups and why economists are even more careful to hedge their bets. They speak of tendencies; possibilities; opportunities. Not laws.

Some familiar conclusions and some conclusions worth thinking about stem from this.

For a century and a half, ‘communism’ has enjoyed an apparent moral superiority that derives from its claim to have detected and to represent inevitability. The status quo, indiscriminately labelled oppressive and sinning ‘capitalism’, no matter how modern societies differ and representative governments successively adjust to change, is always by contrast not only defective, but also damned.

This thinking in its classical Marxist form - and in its Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Freudian, neo-marxist and New Left, Maoist and other variations - is systematized belief, not science. Communism was never and is not scientifically inevitable; communist parties do not speak for a permanently excluded class and no longer speak alone for the poor. If they ever did.

But if they wish to speak for those currently excluded, they must give the real people they call ‘the voiceless’ a voice, by submitting themselves to elections. Unlike the South African Communist Party, sheltered by its alliance with the ANC, the banished Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters have had to take that risk, avoided by revolutionaries till now as counter-revolutionary.

Despite all the media hype, despite the inequality and evident injustices in SA society, it is anybody's guess how it will work out for them without History on their side.

Revised article that first featured on Politicsweb on August 1 2012


James Groenewald said...

What Marx (and by extension Marxists) did not take into account was what Schumpeter defined as "creative destruction". This phenomenon extends throughout the universe at all levels, from galaxies that are destroyed to create new ones all the way down to molecules that are chemically recombined into others. The value of labour is intrinsic to the knowledge it embodies, but just as knowledge is not necessarily valid forever, so labour also looses it's value over time. Male a/Mugabe are still clinging to a knowledge system that might have been valid in th 1800s, I.e. The value of land lay in what it's surface could produce, the British introduced a different knowledge system with the Boer War, which has subsequently been replaced by more advanced knowledge systems,

Paul Whelan said...

Thanks, James. Things have indeed moved on since Marx, both in terms of knowledge and bitter experience of where Marxism led. But ideas (or, as I argue here, faiths) linger on after they have passed their sell-by date. I put it down in this case to SA's isolation from mainstream thinking under apartheid. But as you say, knowledge changes all the time, and I believe the times and knowledge are changing rapidly now, playing catch-up.