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August 02, 2013



I think you should maybe draw more of a distinction between 'Marxists' and you, rather than leaving it to the last paragraph. For example, *you* may not regard your political opponents as moral or intellectual defectives but surely it can't be beyond your experience that quite a lot of 'Marxists' do just that?


Can't you be both. A social democrat when it comes to political activism (because there will never be a Marxist revolution) and a Marxist when it comes to cool-headed scepticism?

I mean I prefer real ale over lager, but if a pub doesn't do decent ale I'll settle for Guinness.

Most of my friends (none of whom are Marxists), vote Labour for no other reason than they hate them slightly less than the Tories. Does that make them Social Democrats? I don't know anybody in real life who is as enthusiastic about Ed Miliband as Polly Tonybee is. The expression "They're all the bloody same, it doesn't matter who you vote for" isn't exactly limited to this blog, is it?

Luis Enrique

You ask all these frightfully interesting questions, diagnose deep malaise etc. but I'm sure you're familiar with the idea that point is not to interpret the world but to change it. So what's a Marxist to do?

You don't think the state can be run beneficially by the man in Whitehall, but how would you change the world if not by having the government introduce some new policies?
Who is going to design those new policies if you are so distrustful of expertise?
Why isn't a citizen's basic income just a policy variant, run from Whitehall?

You think voter's preferences are biased towards capitalism, but how are you going to get elected? Or are you still planning a revolution?

Luis Enrique

the word "frightfully" sound disparaging. I should have just written "very".

George Hallam

> the word "frightfully" sound disparaging. > I should have just written "very"."

Too late you've given the game away.

Luis Enrique

what game, George?


I suspect your cynicism is a little too bracing for many lefties.

I am slightly more surprised to find it popular with the Tories, who have been picking up bad habits of political piety over the past few decades.


@ Shuggy - maybe you're right. I said I was being idiosyncratic - but perhaps I was solipsistic as well.
@ Pablopatito - I've often voted Labour, as it is the least bad option. But we should recognize it as least bad, not pretend otherwise.
@ Luis - there's lots Marxists can do to help the transition to socialism, for example encourage the "interstitial tranformation" I discussed here:
Another thing we can do is to shift the Overton window, by making Marxian ideas respectable.
These are long jobs.

Jamie Whyte

Interesting post. However, I am not sure you are right that voters have pro-capitalist (or, at least, pro-free market) biases. Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter, has data suggesting that voters have anti-trade biases and believe that prices are determined by corporate greed rather than by supply and demand.


Hi Chris, great post as usual but I disagree when you say,

" ... when we see blacks and immigrants being harrassed, we see the state acting in character."

I don't believe the UK state, or most other states, are inherently racist. The current episode of immigrant bashing is purely an attempt by a desperate government to gain votes from an impoverished electorate - an electorate which needs a scapegoat to blame for its misery. Immigrants provide this scapegoat.

Further, as you, Jonathan Portes and many other eminent economists have said, immigration is good for the economy. If immigration is good for the economy (capitalists) one would expect the state, as agent for its capitalist principals, to welcome immigrants.

Either the government does not believe immigration is beneficial to the economy (and hence to capitalists) or it is desperate to win votes. I suspect the latter.

Churm Rincewind

@ Anonymous: "Either the government does not believe immigration is beneficial to the economy (and hence to capitalists) or it is desperate to win votes. I suspect the latter."

Well no, I don't think anyone believes that immigration is not beneficial to the economy. But your alternative explanation that the present government is "desperate to win votes" might be rephrased as "is trying to address a genuine public concern as is right and proper in a liberal democracy".

Luis Enrique

I suppose farmers markets and credit unions might start a cascade that sweeps away capitalism, but if your objective is to make things better formthe worse off, i rather sympathise with those who engage with the political process and attempt to get the man in Whiitehall to adopt better policies

Churm Rincewind

I'm with Luis Enrique above. Sure, community activism can be a powerful factor in all sorts of ways, but if (for example) credit unions "have a big chance of success" why aren't they out there already? Is the community at fault?

By the same token, if the state (and hence day to day political engagement) is fundamentally flawed, where do we go from here?

This is a counsel of despair.


Too many politicians and observers of politics miss the ways in which politicians, including those on the left, can shape the political agenda if they want to. Run a populist and (important in this media age) catchy anti-establishment campaign, and you'll do well in this political climate whether you're with the establishment or determined to fight it. Lay down the law to capital, and you'll get political credit for it, particularly in systems like the US and the French where opportunities for individual political populists are stronger than in party-dominated Britain and Germany. There are challenges; finding a like minded-person to replace you when you retire, facing down tougher and tougher establishment electoral opposition as you seek ever-higher office, and so on. The bigger picture is that building an organization, as opposed to elevating an individual, that maintains an anti-establishment stance AND a degree of political success over a long period of time is not only difficult but almost a contradiction in terms. So people have to be realistic about the fact that sometimes organizations, such as center-left political parties, falter, sometimes they need to be rejuvenated from inside or outside, and sometimes they need to be replaced by something else.

Tristan Ewins

If Social Democracy has no prospects how do we explain the better situation in the Nordics, Holland, Denmark - compared with Britain? How do we explain that Wage Earner Funds in Sweden were 'a near run thing'? Also, I think we should avoid a narrow definition of social democracy. Even after 1917-19 there were radical (Marxist) Social Democrats - for instance in Austria, and with the Popular Front in France. These movements had flaws - but they were Social Democratic in the traditional sense - and Marxist as well. Taking scepticism TOO far can result in passivism and defeatism.

Tristan Ewins

In addition to my last comment: As to Marxism being 'extreme' you can have a Marxist analysis of the flaws of capitalism without being 'revolutionary' in the sense of insurrection. John Quiggin, for instance, finds Marxism useful for economic analysis - but does not consider himself a revolutionary. But if we have a preference for a path of insurrection and Terror when there are better alternatives - well should we ever put it in to practice that might be considered 'extreme'.


At what point do we get to call mature Marxists who do not actively work for the international overthrow of capitalism or control of the state ‘not Marxists’? Surely in the same vein that ‘cafeteria’ Catholics represent sad facets of the human condition (that youthful indoctrination is tenacious and the urge to retain membership of a group is a strong and persistent one) we should recognise that ‘cool-headed scepticism’ is to Marxism as not really believing in transubstantiation is to Catholicism.

Even if ‘we’ don’t recognise this point then the author should as it can’t be long before the spittle-flecked loons notice.


Dear Chris, as a Russian, I'd like to pose a following, perhaps, too general question: what does it mean to be a Marxist in the post-Soviet experience world? What does a Marxist alternative really enatil in it?


Dear Churm,

Don’t despair. Look at the facts. Credit unions exist in numbers, are thriving and have a healthy future.


Same for co-operatives.


You should have been at this international event late last year to get an appreciation for how solid, thriving and optimistic some of the alternatives business forms to traditional companies are.


In addition there are plenty of campaign initiatives aimed at blunting the effectiveness of large corporate lobbying efforts at national level by urging local government representatives to adopt simple guidelines that favour local and regional businesses against extractive supranationals. Support those.

And don’t give up.



So wait, if managerialism is wrong, then people believe in it are wrong - or not? Your mutterings about not believing in opponents who are "intellectually defective" don't come up to scratch.



You should read this, from Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin magazine, on very closely related matters:

"Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the 'Republic of Letters,' which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence."

I couldn't agree more.

I tend to be very skeptical about cool-headed, polite discussions between gentlemen/scholars, on what's the best course of action, the plan that maximizes returns in the most rational way.

Call me paranoid, but, for some reason, these discussions remind me of a former Australian Labour minister (former trade unionist and big pals with the local mining mega-hyper-ultra-rich), who, in his resignation speech said this:

"Creating opportunities by working with business is not the same thing as pointless class rhetoric. In essence, we need to grow the pie to share it."



Re: Gorbachev's dreams for the Soviet Union


I think it's probably 'cos you suck up to them. and that "against women" thing and all.


or aanother way ...

the thing that unites people on the left is they think the game is producing a rotten result, but there are two distinct explanations.

One group take an analytical approach, and say the reason is all the players are playing rationally but the rules are rigged, so some people will never win, and other people will nearly always win.

The other group takes a moral approach. There is nothing wrong with the rules, the problem is evil people are abusing the rules for their own benefit.

An example is the argument over Starbucks tax. Some said we should change the rules, others said Starbucks should behave in a moral way.

Big Fez

"One oddity of this blog is that it is often better-regarded by righties than by lefties. One reason for this, I suspect[...]"

I suspect the only explanation necessary for this phenomenon is the traditional tendency of many on the left to criticise someone all the more, and often all the more nastily, the closer the other's position is to their own.

Although your intention may have been otherwise I fear that this post may have turned out to be a net contributor to that problem.

(And yes, I am a social democrat who generally regards your blog quite highly)

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