Of Marx, mice and Alberto Garzón: part one

On 3 August, Alberto Garzón, the leader of the Spanish United Left (Izqierda Unida, or I.U.) posted an article entitled "Is Marxism a scientific method?" Under the guise of presenting a 'scientific' critique, Garzón was preparing a break with Marxism. Like every revisionist in history, he disguises this break with the excuse of 'modifying' the ideas of Marx. In reality, he was jumping on the bandwagon of those 'left' leaders who are making a dash for the 'centre ground'.

In their haste to present themselves in a more modern and moderate light, they cast off the theoretical baggage of the past, which they regard as an encumbrance, whereas in fact it is a necessary compass that leads the movement to the correct path.

Alberto Arregui is a member of the Federal Coordinating Committee of the IU. Together with Alan Woods, the political editor of marxist.com, he has produced a detailed reply to the arguments of Garzón. This was published by Cuarto Poder (in parts one, two and three): a daily internet publication that is widely read by the Spanish left. It has caused quite a stir.

We will be publishing the reply in two parts, on Tuesday and Wednesday, for the information of our readers, and we invite you to give it the widest circulation.

Alan Woods

The left, and not only in Spain, finds itself in a state of bewilderment before a self-evident paradox: capitalism, the economic system from which has arisen the destructive exploitation of nature and human labour, is passing through what is possibly the most serious global crisis in its entire history. It would seem logical that, in such a moment, an anti-capitalist alternative should be strengthened, since the need for socialism has never been more clearly demonstrated in the whole of history.

Despite this, the main political formations of the left have proved incapable of taking advantage of these favourable conditions and are now plunged in a series of internal struggles, trying to discover who to blame for their failure. Greece is a case in point, but so is the case of Spain, where the experience of the last decade has served to expose the illusory nature of the democratic transition.

It is, of course, the duty of any activist, and not only of the leadership, to attempt to understand the world in which we live and to overcome its self-evident deficiencies in practice. Comrade Alberto Garzón has approached this task, attempting to discover the source of these failures. However, in order to obtain a satisfactory answer, it is first necessary to formulate a satisfactory question; and in order to find something, one has to look in the right places. We very much fear that, by jumping on the bandwagon of the host of professors, parliamentarians and intellectuals engaged in their never-ending efforts to ‘supersede’ Marxism, he has mistaken both the question to be asked and the places to look. He therefore runs the risk of failing to see the wood from the trees and to analyse his own responsibility, that of the leadership of the United Left on his watch, and of the left as a whole.

alberto garzon 3 Image Flickr sevillareportAlberto Garzón appears to be sliding onto a slippery slope that, rather than ‘correcting’ the ideas of Marx and Engels, can lead to a total break with Marxism / Image: Flickr, sevillareport

We believe that our most pressing task is not to ‘discover’ deficiencies in the writings of Marx and Engels (and exchange them for nothing whatsoever), but to establish the basis for the realisation of socialism. One of the things that unites all the intellectual quacks who serve the interests of the bourgeoisie everywhere, is the constant declaration that Marxism is dead, or at least has been left far behind. Alberto Garzón, in his article, which carries the promising title of Is Marxism a scientific method? appears to be sliding onto a slippery slope that, rather than ‘correcting’ the ideas of Marx and Engels, can lead to a total break with Marxism.

The comrade writes:

“Marxism is not, to sum up, the key that opens all doors. Marxism is rather a humble instrument for the analysis of society and also for political practice.”

To the best of our knowledge, nobody has ever claimed that Marxism is “the key that opens all doors”. But it is most definitely the only consistently revolutionary theory that provides us with a powerful tool for understanding capitalist society, and therefore preparing the ground for its revolutionary overthrow. If that is what Alberto means to say, then we agree with him. Nevertheless, the entire content of his article leads us to the opposite conclusion.

Garzón refers in an ironic tone to “sacred scriptures” and “the altar of Marxian orthodoxy”, and other such commonplaces, thereby presenting himself as a courageous innovator engaged in a struggle against ideas that have become ossified into a kind of religion that does not admit any modification or questioning.

Marxism, in our firm opinion, is indeed scientific socialism (without inverted commas) and therefore very far from any kind of religion. It is based on a rigorous scientific method (dialectical materialism) and a scientific interpretation of history (historical materialism).

Like any scientific theory, Marxism can be modified, added to and changed in the light of recent discoveries. But if one examines the fundamental ideas put forward by Marx and Engels, what is surprising is just how little has had to be changed in the course of the last 150 years. This fact is itself a striking indication of the robustness and vitality of Marxism.

Let us submit this claim to a little test. If we go to a library and take out any bourgeois book on sociology, economics or politics written 150 years ago, it will immediately become obvious that this book is merely of historical interest – its application to modern conditions, next to zero. But if we open the pages of the Communist Manifesto, written by two young men in 1847, Marx and Engels, we will find a most astonishing description and analysis, not of the world of 1847, but of the world in which we live today.

The vitality of Marxism

This fact has been noted in recent times by people who have no connection with Marxism, or indeed are hostile to it. Even the official newspaper of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article in 2009 praising Marxist analysis of the inequality of incomes, which is a rather surprising recognition of the man who declared religion to be the opium of the people. Capital is now a best-seller in Germany, while in Japan it has been published in a manga format.

Marx was right Image Flickr IISGMarx and Engels' words retain all of their relevance today / Image: Flickr, IISG

George Magnus, one of the main economic analysts of the UBS bank, wrote an article with the intriguing title, “Give Karl Marx a chance to save the world economy.” Switzerland-based UBS is a pillar of the financial establishment, with offices in more than 50 countries and over $2tn in assets. Yet in an essay for Bloomberg View, Magnus wrote that “today’s global economy bears some uncanny resemblances to what Marx foresaw.” In his article, he starts by describing policymakers “struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world” and suggests that they would do well to study the works of “a long-dead economist, Karl Marx”:

“Consider, for example, Marx’s prediction of how the inherent conflict between capital and labor would manifest itself. As he wrote in Das Kapital, companies’ pursuit of profits and productivity would naturally lead them to need fewer and fewer workers, creating an ‘industrial reserve army’ of the poor and unemployed: ‘Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery’.”

He continues:

“The process he [Marx] describes is visible throughout the developed world, particularly in the U.S. Companies’ efforts to cut costs and avoid hiring have boosted U.S. corporate profits as a share of total economic output to the highest level in more than six decades, while the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent and real wages are stagnant.

“U.S. income inequality, meanwhile, is by some measures close to its highest level since the 1920s. Before 2008, the income disparity was obscured by factors such as easy credit, which allowed poor households to enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. Now the problem is coming home to roost.”

The Wall Street Journal published an interview with the well-known economist Dr. Nouriel Roubini, who argues that the chain of credit is broken, and that capitalism has entered into a vicious cycle where excess capacity (overproduction), falling consumer demand and high levels of debt, all breed a lack of confidence in investors that in turn will be reflected in sharp falls on the stock exchange, falling asset prices and a collapse in the real economy.

Like all the other economists, Roubini has no real solution for the present crisis except more injections of liquidity by the central banks in order to avoid a collapse. His conclusions could scarcely be more pessimistic:

“Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They’re not working.”

The most serious bourgeois economists, particularly since the crisis of 2008, have become increasingly interested in the theories of Marx and Engels. It is therefore ironic that, in this very same period, a growing number of people on the left have decided to throw Marxism overboard. Alberto Garzón runs the risk of joining this camp.

The poverty of Popperism

Although he tries to conceal his abandonment of Marxism by all manner of peculiar circumlocutions, asking questions but giving no clear answers, the thrust of his argument is very clear: Marxism is out of date and no longer serves even as a method of analysis. We must, therefore, find an alternative. But what alternative does he propose?

Comrade Garzón says he is opposed to “quoting dead authors to see if our current thoughts fit their words”. By dead authors, he clearly refers to Marx and Engels. But then he goes on to quote with approval the words of Karl Popper who regrettably passed away in the year of our Lord 1994, and is therefore precisely a dead author, whom we are told should not be quoted.

Karl Popper Image Lucinda Douglas MenziesKarl Popper (whom Garzón cites) collaborated with arch-reactionaries like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman / Image: Lucinda Douglas Menzies

The choice of Karl Popper as a point of reference for the so-called “philosophy of science” is doubly unfortunate in view of the fact that he devoted almost his entire life to vilifying Marxism, communism and socialism. He was a fanatical defender of so-called liberal democracy, i.e. capitalism.

Popper collaborated actively with other arch-reactionary advocates of the “free market economy” like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. His most famous books, The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies, are libellous attacks against socialism in general and Marxism in particular.

It is frankly incredible that a responsible leader of the Spanish Left can seriously take this reactionary philosopher as the starting point for his argument against “historicism”, i.e. against Marxism itself. As far as Popper’s theoretical pretensions are concerned, these cannot be taken seriously. He proclaimed himself as High Priest of an alleged “philosophy of Science”. But his attempt to establish an arbitrary definition for what is, and what is not, science (the “falsifiability theory”) has been comprehensively demolished and is regarded with contempt by most scientists today.

We take the liberty to point out that Popper’s absurd theories not only reject Marxism but also the ideas of Charles Darwin, Einstein and modern genetics. Popper stated that Darwinism “is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program—a possible framework for testable scientific theories,” and “almost tautological”. One might add that these false arguments have been utilised by the reactionary right in the USA to defend the ideas of Creationism.

Is Marxism out of date?

Alberto says “We cannot forget that Marx and Engels were children of their time.” Indeed they were. As were Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. To state this is to state the obvious. But what is meant by this statement? The argument is put forward that Marx and Engels were, to quote comrade Garzón, “products of their time.” That is a sly way of saying that they are products of the 19th century, therefore old-fashioned, hopelessly out of date and irrelevant to the 21st century. They provide old ideas, whereas what is required in the 21st century are new views.

But wait a minute, comrade Garzón!

An idea is not necessarily false for being old. In the fairy story of Aladdin the wizard promised new lamps for old. A foolish young lady took him at his word and thereby parted with a fortune. She discovered the hard way that new lamps are not necessarily better than old ones, and people hawking such new products in the streets are to be definitely avoided.

Let us take another example. The wheel has been around for many thousands of years and despite its advanced age still functions tolerably well. What would we think about somebody who protested that it was time to dispense with the old wheel and invent a new one, which would obviously be much better for the fact of being new. What shape would this new wheel have? Would it be square, rectangular or octagonal? Whatever the shape, one could be absolutely certain that it would not carry us a single step further.

We wish to make it clear that we do not have a closed mind to new ideas, on the condition that their superiority is proved to us. Let us make an offer to comrade Garzón: if you are able to show us a set of ideas that offers a better explanation than Marxism of the present crisis of capitalism and which offers us a better alternative, we promise to abandon Marxism and embrace the new theory with every enthusiasm.

The problem is that, up to the present day, the critics of Marxism have never been capable of offering anything of the sort. Nor have they been able to explain what these new ideas of theirs really consist of. As a matter of fact, the ideas of Marx and Engels are a thousand times more relevant and correct today than when they were first put forward. The Communist Manifesto is the most contemporary document that one can read. Let us quote just two examples to illustrate the point.

Statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Adam Jones PhThere are two alternatives before the human race: socialism or barbarism. In modern conditions perhaps we ought to modify that to socialism, or the destruction of life on Earth / Image: Adam Jones

Nowadays, globalisation is considered to be a recent phenomenon. Yet it was explained and predicted in the pages of the Manifesto, 150 years before it existed. Marx and Engels explained how capitalism first creates the nation state as a means of developing the productive forces, but the development of the latter outstrips the narrow limits of the nation state, creating a world market. The crushing domination of the world market is the most striking feature of the world we live in.

In recent decades, bourgeois economists assured us that Marx was wrong when he predicted a growing polarisation between rich and poor, and an enormous concentration of wealth and power in a few hands. In Marx’s day, there was very little empirical evidence to prove this. Capitalism only existed to any extent in England, and even there, large-scale industry had not yet developed. What is the position today?

The argument of the bourgeois economists that “small is beautiful” has most certainly been falsified by history. It is a prediction that is in flagrant contradiction with present-day reality. Today, the entire world economy is in the hands of no more than 200 gigantic multinational companies, most of them based in the United States of America.

A mere 147 giant corporations make up a “super-entity” that controls 40 percent of the world’s wealth. These megacorporations are the real rulers of the world economy. The 10 biggest multinationals, including Walmart, Apple and Shell, earn more money than the majority of the countries of the world combined. The value of the 10 main companies amounts to $285tn, which is greater than the $280tn that constitutes the wealth of the last 180 countries, including Ireland, Indonesia, Israel, Colombia, Greece, South Africa, Iraq and Vietnam.

If one of the requirements of a correct theory is its ability to make accurate predictions, then these very bold and striking predictions have been entirely confirmed by subsequent history.

Referring to the founders of scientific socialism, Alberto Garzón tells us, although it is impossible to know what sources he is using, that “both authors believed that the future of society was predetermined.” With a certain reluctance, the leader of United Left adds that “they claimed that capitalism was pregnant with socialism.” This statement is in itself an admission of a rejection of dialectical thought, not understanding that socialism is an historical necessity.

The only way to overcome capitalism in a progressive manner is socialism, but it is the only tendency that it carries in its womb. The internal contradictions are not subject to a predetermined outcome. Perhaps it would be easier for comrade Garzón to understand that pregnancy is a tendency, the preferred result of which is the growth of the foetus and a healthy birth. But there are other possibilities since other forces are at work in nature and in the human body, including those which we regard as accidental factors, that can result in a miscarriage, for example. If the comrade would pay attention to Marx and Engels, then he would know that they also considered the possibility of “the mutual destruction of the contending forces.” To give a simple example, an acorn can be said to be pregnant with an oak tree, but there exist many possibilities that this magnificent tree will never come into being: some animal might swallow it, without even realising that it has interrupted a dialectical process…

History knows a descending line as well as an ascending one. We see this clearly in what happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Marx and Engels explained that there are two alternatives before the human race: socialism or barbarism. In modern conditions perhaps we ought to modify that celebrated phrase: the alternatives before humanity are socialism or the destruction of life on Earth. And the result, as ever, will depend on the class struggle.

Part two |