Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Marx, Hitchens ... Clegg?, by Ben Myring

When your esteemed editor requested an article from me on the subject of 'being a Christopher Hitchens Marxist in the Liberal Democrats', I wasn't sure whether to chortle or bridle. Clearly I was being set up for a fall.
Still, it does no harm to have to set out one's first principles and intellectual roots occasionally, and while 'a Christopher Hitchens Marxist in the Lib Dems' is a terribly reductive description of my political position, it's hardly an inaccurate one.

And how does a historical materialist find himself marching behind the tattered banners of Comrade Clegg, fighting (and losing) local government elections in the tribalist borderlands of North London? Good question.

I have always been a man of the Left, steeped in and supportive of its egalitarian traditions. Not uncommonly, the appeal of Marxism made itself felt when I was still in my teens.

And, like so many who feel that pull, I had my period of hammer-and-sickle-waving zeal. In truth - and tellingly - my hammer and cycle was wrought from gold, suspended on a fine gold chain.

Yet I was never a dogmatic communist.

For me, the explosive and truly revolutionary aspect of Marx's thought was not in his narrow predictive abilities or even his political programme, but in his exposing of the link between technological and societal change.

Along with contemporaries like Freud, Marx demolished the narrative of an organic society that had been so central to all previous ideologies.

Which is not to say that this demolition has had the profound consciousness-raising affect on human society that it ought to have done.

I am often reminded of a killer question posed by my bearded and twinkle-eyed Sociology teacher.

He had instilled in us the well-evidenced understanding that nurture is more important than nature in determining social outcomes, an understanding accepted as fact by almost all social scientists.

But which two groups, he asked, hold on to the organicist illusion?

His answer has never left me (and may have influenced my occasional tendency towards intellectual elitism): a) the media, and b) the public. False consciousness has deep roots.

Thus for me the attraction of Marxism was always more intellectual and academic than, shall we say, 'party political'.

I considered myself an extension of the old joke about there being three Trotskyist parties for every two Trotskyists - I wanted no party at all.

By temperament I remained sceptical of the call to submit myself to the rigours of 'democratic centralism' or partake in interminable debates about the futility of parliamentary democracy.

And anyway, I was and remain really rather fond of parliamentary democracy, despite its cracks and flaws and farcicalities.

The warnings of Orwell cut deep, too. Whatever our egalitarian sympathies, however obvious the need for radical or revolutionary change (and however pressing the need for one to have that unfettered and unrestricted power in one's own hands, in the interest of the public of course, along with the right violently to purge one's foolish enemies at will), the seductions and temptations of authoritarianism and totalitarianism must always be fiercely resisted.

Indeed, in truth I was as enamoured with the tradition of Locke, Mill, Bentham, and Kant as I was that of Marx and his fellow critical theorists.

For what are equality and fraternity without liberty?

And not just liberty from the undue encroachment of the state (though the importance of that cannot be overstated), but the freedom from the insidious oppression of society itself: the poison of patriarchy and machismo, the straitjackets of gender and sexual norms, the crippling parochialism of nationalism and xenophobia, and the intellectual bankruptcy of anti-intellectualism, of organicism, and the wearying, mind-numbing crassness of so-called 'common sense'.

And so onto the late, great Christopher Hitchens, a man utterly alien to such restrictions.

Though I only discovered his work in the last decade or so of his life - when he noisily joined Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in their public roles as the 'Four Horseman of the Counter-Apocalypse' - his fierce writing and furious public personae had a profound influence on me.

I saw him speak in person but once, but I will never forget his fearsome oratory.

He was a titan of the humanist, anti-totalitarian left. It was as though the man could articulate my own thoughts before I had even thought them.

A Marxist who favoured Trotsky over Lenin, and Luxemburg over both. A devotee of the enlightenment, who confessed to a "sort of Whiggish" belief in human progress, but retained a profound scepticism concerning the promises of demagogues and authoritarians.

Not merely a secularist or atheist, but an anti-theist, who out-Orwelled Orwell in his understanding that religion was the seed of totalitarianism.

I was profoundly influenced by his loss, and it is rare for a day to go by without my wishing I could hear his articulate rage at the latest gross injustice.

Like The Hitch, I remain a historical materialist with a penchant for the dialectic.

Hitchens said of himself that he was "a Marxist who was no longer a socialist" - I'm fond of the term Marxish - and like him I find myself part of that long line of people and parties who struggle to balance and reconcile the egalitarian principles of the Left with the critical safeguards of the Liberal tradition.

Marx believed that capitalism would not be replaced until it had exhausted its ability to adapt and renew itself. In retrospect it is easy to see that he somewhat underestimated capitalism's ability to do just that.

Hitchens recognised that capitalism, especially in its latest hyper-globalist phase, was "innovative and internationalist", and rather convincingly noted that those parts of the world that are the most oppressive and authoritarian are those where the bourgeois revolution has stalled.

And, to stick with historical materialism for a moment: among the most important lessons of the 20th century is that in a world of boundary-dissolving globalisation you cannot build 'socialism' in one country. Poor Trotsky was proved to be right about that in the end.

The global movement of capital, of people, of culture and ideas, are rapidly dissolving the socioeconomic foundations of the seventeenth-century sovereign state model and its bastard eighteenth-century offspring, the nation state.

We can learn the lessons of the past to look ahead - in my view a globalised world requires more than feeble and anarchic global governance, it needs global government.

It needs transnational, cosmopolitan, democratised institutions in which we can rebuild, safeguard, and underpin the social democracy that we see being eroded at the level of nation state.

This idea, with its routes in Aristotle, Dante and Kant, has been renewed of late in the work of democratic cosmopolitan writers as diverse as Danile Archibugi, David Held, and George Monbiot. There is much more to be done.

This is not a trivial matter – technological progress and the gradual dissolving of the old social order mean that we are just as likely to end up in the authoritarian and impersonal grimness of Mega City One than the post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek.

We must not abandon Marx's exhortation to think ahead, and think radically. To shed old narratives and intellectual shackles.

Nationalism is just as much an opiate of the people as religion was (and in some places still is). Like Hitchens, I like to recall the neglected follow up to Marx's famous opium dig:

"...the criticism of religion … has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower."

And yet it's nice to have people to cull flowers with, and to plant them, too. Am I a socialist libertarian? A social liberal? A social democrat? Labels matter less than ideas, less than practice (or, to utilise the delightful Marxist term, praxis).

Marx said that we should seek not just to understand the world, but to change it.

In my own small way I have being trying to contribute to my community as best I can - a little volunteering here, a campaign or two there.

Nor am I still immune to the pull of party politics and the grubby realities of elections. But what party could accommodate an eccentric like me?

It would have to be pluralist rather than majoritarian. Anti-nationalist, cosmopolitanism and transnationalist rather than merely internationalist.

Committed to egalitarianism - and showing an understanding of the societal harm that inequality causes - but hesitant to be over-reliant on statism to achieve its goals.

Deeply sceptical of social conservatism of any kind.

It would need to abhor the shambles of our outdated constitutional arrangements, and see the folly of entrenched perma-failure policies such as the 'war on drugs'.

It would need to be a contemplative and rationalist party, rejecting tribalism, indifferent to emotional reasoning, and cognisant of the dangers of identity politics.

This, dear comrades, is how I find myself in the Liberal Democrats.

Not always an easy place to be, especially in these interesting times. But, for all their flaws, they are a thoughtful and indefatigable bunch.

And I tend to think, in my Marxish way, that they are on the right side of history.

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