Friday 24 March 2017

Daniel Hannan, Marxism, and Dishonesty

I do apologise for featuring Daniel Hannan on this blog.

Yes, that is one of the right's leading intellectual lights. In his own words. His own stupid words.

I've picked this out not because Hannan's criticism is interesting and hasn't been said millions of times before, but because it has been repeated ad nauseum for the last century and is as banal as anti-communist boiler plate gets.

What strikes me is the method of argument, which in typical Hannan fashion drips with bad faith. It begins with that old warhorse, the "Marx is responsible for 100 million deaths", a point so risible that to take it seriously impoverishes the standards of political debate. Hannan has after all argued Hitler was a socialist because National Socialist innit, so we shouldn't be shocked to find him trading in bankrupt political stock.

Also of interest is the strategy chosen to prove his "thesis" that Marx was wrong about everything, which is assimilated to everything he predicted being wrong. It goes like this. Look, no revolution! Look, no sign of the poor getting poorer! Since 1848, the year the Communist Manifesto was published, there have been hundreds of revolutions. Hundreds. Some have succeeded, and have typically had fairly modest objectives. The overthrow of dictatorship or authoritarian government and its replacement by liberal democracy is the contemporary form. But even then, counterrevolution can win out. If Hannan wants his socialist revolutions, he can have them. Russia, obviously, but also the failed revolutions in Germany between 1918 and the mid 20s, and France 1968. Sorry Dan, you won't find anywhere in Marx's works a prediction that socialist revolutions would automatically be successful. They everywhere and always depend on the balance of forces. i.e. Politics.

On the poor getting poorer, that firstly wasn't a phrase Marx used - more dishonesty. And secondly, he did note that wealth would increasingly concentrate in ever greater quantities in an ever-diminishing number of hands. And, not that Hannan would notice or even care, there are plenty of people on this planet who work long hours and earn an utter pittance. Poverty reduction and the expanding middle class on a global scale Hannan approvingly noted was, in recent years, largely accounted for by China, a state noted for taking a very hands-on approach to economic policy and a self-identified socialist one to boot! And let's look at some of Marx's other predictions: capitalism's chronic tendency to crisis, the diminishing of the law of value, the replacement of living labour by dead labour (i.e. machines), the constant revolutionising of production and ceaseless churn of social life, the persistence of movements and parties founded on class struggle, the use of foreign labour to divide workers and keep the values of wages down, the non-disappearance of unemployment - need we go on? There are a number of things Marx didn't predict, but from the distance of 150 years since Volume One of Capital was published, perhaps Hannan would like to tell us how each of these don't exist, weren't forecast, and are a figment of the left's dogmatism?

Such as it was, Hannan's argument has to fight shy of the actual facts, of any kind of exegetical engagement with what Marx actually said and the historical record for it to maintain a smidgen of plausibility. And yet being demonstrably false, fake history if you will, it comes back time and again. 50 years from now there will still be people making exactly the same argument. How is this possible? It's because, in politics, truth and evidence are always secondary. Politics is war by less violent, peaceful means, and that means our fabulous parliamentary democracy is always conditioned by the necessity of managing a necessarily contradictory, necessarily conflicting social system crisscrossed by the struggle of interests. Hannan is the son of privilege and spent his formative years in elite institutions. There is little doubt he is a convinced hard right ideologue, and lacking the wit and empathy to think beyond the boundaries of his gilded berth he assumes the air of an expert, the ruling class analogue of front. Something we've seen a bit of lately. With this imagined authority, which is materialised by the platform provided by the Conservative Party as a MEP and the "intellectual" personality conferred by the rightwing media (and any media that treats with him as a Person Who Matters), he has the apparatus to say pretty much what he likes. He can be critiqued and shown to be full of it, but the political economy of Tory punditry protects him. There's an audience for the mendacious and the idiotic, and as a good disciple of free markets he's dutifully supplying a demand. Coincidentally, this position also helps reproduce the intellectual case for the sorts of interests he embodies, which in turn assists the conditioning, tone, and borders of public debate.

This then is Daniel Hannan, an intellectual evasive of intellectual inquiry. A self-styled historian who fights shy of the historical record. A representative of a layer of pundits, commentators, and "thinkers" for whom truth is passé, a tedious, conformist and boringly unoriginal chunterer without a scintilla of merit, let alone credibility and honesty. He is a product, a vessel of interests, and a not terribly sophisticated one at that.


Blissex said...

«There are a number of things Marx didn't predict, but from the distance of 150 years»

I found accidentally some time ago a quote from W Liebknecht which is quite apposite here, both as to his intuition even as to electricity, and other topics:

«Soon we were on the field of natural science, and Marx ridiculed the victorious reaction in Europe that fancied it had smothered the revolution and did not suspect that natural science was preparing a new revolution. That King Steam who had revolutionised the world in the last century had ceased to rule, and that into his place a far greater revolutionist would step, the electric spark. And now Marx, all flushed and excited, told me that during the last few days the model of an electric engine drawing a railroad train was on exhibition in Regent street. “Now the problem is solved – the consequences are indefinable. In the wake of the economic revolution the political must necessarily follow, for the latter is only the expression of the former.” [ ... ] A great crowd indicated the show window behind which the model was exhibited. I forced my way through; to be sure, there was the engine and the train, and engine and train were spinning around merrily.
It was then 1850, the beginning of July. And today it is 1896, the beginning of April. Forty-five years and a half have passed, and no railroad train is yet driven by an electric engine. The few street cars and whatever else are operated by electricity do not signify much on the whole, however much it may appear. And in spite of all revolutionising inventions it will take some time yet before lightning, completely tamed, will allow itself to be hitched to the yoke of human labour and will drive King Steam from his throne.
Revolutions are not accomplished in a sleight-of-hand fashion. Only the sensational shows in politics are called revolutions by the wonder-working rustic faith. And whoever prophesises revolutions is always mistaken in the date.
Well, though Marx was a prophet looking into the future with sharp eyes and perceiving much more than ordinary human beings, he never was a prophesiser, and when Messieurs Kinkel, Ledru Rollin and other revolution-makers announced in every appeal to their folks in partibus the typical, “Tomorrow it will start,” none was so merciless with his satire as Marx.
Only on the subject of “industrial crises” he fell victim to the prophesying imp, and in consequence was subjected to our hearty derision, which made him grimly mad. However, in the main point he was right nonetheless. The prophesied industrial crises did come – only not at the fixed time.»

Speedy said...

Hitler and socialism is more complex than that. The National Socialists did start out like what they said in the box - basically racist supporters of economic and social welfare. Goebbels was a fully signed up socialist before falling under Hitler's spell and Hitler's had a socialist rival (can't remember his name but he had him murdered I think during the Night of the Long Knives). National socialism also explains why many ex communists now support Le Pen, who may be racist but is also a crypto-socialist. It may even be why UKIP is strong in working class areas - the charity begins at home message. Beliefs should not be sacred cows. Stalin was not an aberration, he was the prodigy of the Sainted Lenin. I don't doubt Marx (like Orwell during his Lion and Unicorn phase) would have denied the necessity of cracking a few skulls. This doesn't make socialism wrong, but it doesnt mean keeping it behind a store window either.

Ken said...

Some time ago Hannan put out a picture tweet with an alleged quote from Marx: 'The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way. They must perish in the revolutionary holocaust' - illustrated, aptly enough, with a Nazi propaganda poster.

Some of the words being vaguely familiar, I tracked down the source. It's an indignant account of the devastating effect of capitalist development on the Irish and Scottish peasantry, and says nothing about any revolutionary holocaust.

The first sentence is wrenched out of context, and the second is simply made up. I replied to Hannan's tweet, pointing all this out. He didn't reply.

But he did respond. He deleted the tweet without a word, and carried on his merry way. Ever since, I've regarded him as a dishonest ideologue.

He's not the only one, of course. This widely-used meme has been tracked in the wild and traced to its probable origin here.

Boffy said...

People frequently confuse rich/poor with affluent/not affluent. One refers to stock the other to flow.

You can be affluent, i.e. have a high level of income (meaningfully relative to your cost of living, i.e. a high standard of living) without being rich/wealthy. If all of your revenue goes to pay for this decent standard of living, you will have nothing left over to store up as wealth, and so you will not be wealthy. Moreover, as Marx points out, even this affluence (which he argues DOES rise as capitalism develops, because it goes with rising social productivity) is fragile, and a double edged sword. If you lose your job, your revenue disappears, and you will not be able to cover your living costs.

In the Grundrisse, Marx sets out this difference between affluence and wealth. The more capitalism develops, the more affluent people become, as productivity rises, but the poorer they become, because, the rise in productivity goes along with a concentration and centralisation of capital, so that the minimum efficient size of capital rises. So INDIVIDUALLY, it becomes harder and harder for anyone to own this minimum level of capital required for production. Each individual becomes poorer/less wealthy, because each individual becomes more and more removed from the possibility of owning capital on a sufficient scale to be able to produce competitively.

That is why Marx says private ownership of capital ceases, or is reduced to the margins, whilst capital in its dominant form becomes socialised, i.e. joint stock companies, co-operatives, trusts, state capital.

200 years ago, as a peasant you would have been nowhere near as affluent as the average worker today, because capitalism has massively raised the level of social productivity. But, you would on average have potentially been wealthier, in that you would own your means of production, and thereby have been able to provide for your own needs and those of your family with no concern about whether tomorrow you may or may not have any work, to earn the money to cover your needs.

Blissex said...

«Some of the words being vaguely familiar, I tracked down the source»

Quite good, thanks for that, and also I guess thanks to the WWW.

«carried on his merry way»

He is probably much better paid than any of us, with a long, safe career in "sponsored" advocacy. Why should he give up his success then? :-)

Blissex said...

«The National Socialists did start out like what they said in the box - basically racist supporters of economic and social welfare.»

An article some time ago pointed out that many low income voters have come to think that international socialism has been defeated or has stopped working for them, and they may be considering national socialism instead, and that has been tried before quite unhappily.

We are not the beautiful said...

Bit tangential but as far as Marx's predictions go, half the Marxists I read think the major one was that the rate of profit inevitably declines, leading to a slump in investment, and hence to economic crisis, while the other half act like this idea is nowhere to be found in Marx and it's all about employers producing commodities that workers can't afford to buy (hence crisis)

It's like Marx was two separate people and never the twain ...

Phil said...

Indeed. And there is the small issue of overproduction and hence unrealised surplus value (which cannot be reduced to underconsumptionism) but is embedded in capital's (and capitals') produce-or-die compulsion, and how it may enmesh with the other facets of crisis ...

Also forgot to mention combined and uneven development too.

V H said...

> Sorry Dan, you won't find anywhere in Marx's works a prediction that socialist revolutions would automatically be successful.

In fact, you find the opposite. In The German Ideology, he wrote:

"And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces [...] is absolutely necssary as a practical premise: firstly, for the reason that without it only want is made general, and with want the struggle for necessities and the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced"

He goes on to set out a range of pre-conditions that arguably rule out most attempts so far.

It goes further: The entire foundation of Marx analysis of the historical development of society is based on the idea that one stage needs to mature for the next to be possible. It follows that if an attempt is made too early, it will fail. And hence we e.g. find the range of discussions of the development of various nations and how likely they may be to be able to sustain a socialist revolution in places like the various forewords to the Communist Manifesto.

This was well enough understood that it was e.g. a long standing bone of contention between the different socialist groups in Russia whether a socialist revolution could succeed in there - a debate that continued until the Bolsheviks shut it down by force.

It is interesting to note that a lot of the criticism of Marx has changed nature in later years from the "but the USSR" to drastically overstating Marx' predictions, and attacking that strawman.