Bringing you your M & S
In this case I’m not talking high street retailers, but Marx and Smith. Karl and Adam to be precise. And why not throw in William Morris to boot.
This month’s Gateway sees the final part of the serialised pamphlet from 1927, ‘Matter, Spirit and Karl Marx.’ I’m not sure whether it’s true that everything in the world is connected in more subtle ways than we usually imagine, or what part we play in making the connections, but this month I’ve found that a lot of my thought strands have come together and this (I hope) is reflected in the Gateway output. What am I talking about? Here goes:
In the modern world, I was irked recently by some social media ‘bigging up’ of Adam Smith. He’s a Scot. As was David Hume. As was Sir Walter Scott. And, according to the intellectual arena of social media (now there’s a contradiction in terms surely?) all of these, it seems, must be revered whether you’ve read their work or not. What particularly irritates me this month is people who praise Adam Smith and yet in the rest of their lives espouse political philosophies that are diametrically opposed to his.
Let’s get one thing clear. Marx and Smith are at opposite ends of a spectrum. One Socialist the other Capitalist. And despite what some folks today would have you believe, these two things are indeed different. The New Labour experiment was an attempt to square this particular circle – or bring these two opposite sides together. It’s a dangerous thing to do with political and or moral philosophies. Other examples are Nationalism and Fascism, and Anarchism and Ayn Rand style ‘objectivism.’
Whereas Smith developed the concept of division of labour, and expounded upon how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity, Marx’s socialist dream of a free association of producers is a completely different animal. Capitalism with its inherent competition harks back to the ‘survival of the fittest’ whereas communism (and socialism) in pure theoretical forms are about a classless, equal society (perhaps utopian) where money is a lot less important than time.
Marx and Smith are ideological opposites. Some modern writers claim that their economic theories have a lot in common. Well, they both deal with labour and the rise of capitalism. But they are on opposite sides of the fence. Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ free market economy is not compatible with Marx’s state ordered communism. Not unless you have a really strange conception of ‘only connect’ as a theory.
There may be a point somewhere if you squint into the theory far enough, where they both say things about individual human beings which could be construed as similar. But Smith is all for the advancement of both individuals and nations in a profit driven economy whereas Marx is about a fundamental moral integrity between a man and his labour.
Smith was writing in the mid-18th century. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Marx was writing in the mid-19th century. Das Kapital was published between 1867-1984. A century is a long time in both economic and political philosophy and maybe it’s not right to compare them at all. Even political theory is subject to cultural relativism after all.
In the late 19th century Leatham couldn’t read Marx because it wasn’t translated from the German. So his socialism developed out of the American version of Marxist philosophy. Now what is interesting to me is that Leatham was soon after Marx’s death (in 1883) - between 1896 and 1945. He thus offers an interesting close contemporary view of an emerging philosophy/political/economic system – after the death of its author. Leatham experienced the ‘birth pangs of a nation’ – though vicariously because the demise of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union was as contemporary (and therefore as ‘hidden’) to him as the current Middle East crisis is to us. Sure, we have our views and opinions, but we do not have hindsight. Our relationship with history, political theory and contemporary issues is something we should really think more closely about.
For example, I venture to offer one shocking revelation for my fellow Scots – The Enlightenment is not the best thing that ever happened to us. It’s inconsistent to praise Enlightenment values and claim to be in favour of egalitarian social justice. Capitalism gets in the way. The free market is not the same as ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.’ Join up the dots folks. Think harder. Think deeper. Think.
This month we also have an article on William Morris. How does he fit into this picture (or jigsaw if we’re going to hold with that analogy). In one sense he’s an interesting example of a man who has been used to serve two incompatible purposes. Morris was (at least later in his life) a Socialist. That presented a problem for himself and his business interests in his own time and its certainly presented a problem for his legacy. Well, not so much of a problem as where it’s not been airbrushed from memory, hidden behind the wallpaper and medieval poetry, it’s been dismissed as a whim or fancy. I recommend you get your hands on both Leatham and Glasier’s works on Morris – something of a wake up call. And while you’re at it, why not delve into some of Morris’s own writing. News from Nowhere is an interesting place to start for those not enamoured of medieval poetry.
While I’m in recommendation mode, I would really recommend that folks read political, economic and philosophical theory in general. Yes it can be hard to wade through – yes you have to adapt to an unfamiliar ‘style’ of writing. Smith isn’t brief (but no 18th century writer was succinct). Marx isn’t for dummies. You do have to employ the grey matter and concentrate. Switch off the smartphone and dedicate some time to it! If you want to understand where we are today and what the issues surrounding the free market – and this one is vitally important to us in the contemporary world of Brexit – then a grounding in political and economic theory from times past will do a lot more to educate you than listening to the news and current affairs offerings we are currently having pumped out at us. It’s time to get out of the gilded cage and put in the hard work. If you want to understand how we are all being manipulated. But maybe you don’t want to know that?
To make things just that little bit easier for you, I’ve given you some handy links:
Leatham’s Marx is HERE for free as a PDF.
Leatham’s work on Morris is HERE and Glasier’s is HERE
You can get the entirety of Marx’s output as one ebook collection for under a fiver HERE.
You can download Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a free ebook HERE (Is there an irony there for the father of the free market?)
And HERE from my own recent trawl round t’internet, is an interesting essay on your M&S. Many other offerings are available. It’s good to read opinion, but can I remind you that sooner or later, a trip to the primary sources is a very good idea.
I’ve just had a thought. Maybe Orwell’s Winston Smith was named after Winston Churchill and Adam Smith. How does that impact upon your understanding of 1984? Answers on a postcard please.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.