A mouldering Marx

Communism: a short history

Richard Pipes <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 180pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0297

Why has this book been published now, a decade after the end of the cold war? It's not as if, despite all the conflicts in the world today, there is any prospect of a revival of communism. Among all the symbolism that has been read into the events of 11 September, the terrorist attacks on the United States can also be seen as an epitaph for the international left. It was the collapse of Stalinist-influenced movements that left a void to be filled by such a degraded excuse for anti-imperialism, a nihilistic zealotry that cannot claim responsibility for its actions, never mind attach any political cause to them.

Nor is it as if Richard Pipes, history professor emeritus at Harvard University, has anything new to say. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote a lot of books, he complains, so "few people have ever plowed [sic] through this difficult literature". On the evidence available here, it seems safe to assume that Pipes is not one of the few. His sketchy rendition of the grim recent histories of societies from the Soviet Union and China to Cambodia and Cuba is underpinned by the repetition of crude, warmed-over prejudices about Marx and Marxism - "dogma masquerading as science", "a pseudo-science converted into a pseudo-religion", "economically determined psychology", "an unrealistic psychological doctrine". The professor feels no need to explain any of these cliched assertions - but then, perhaps he appreciates how we have heard them so often before that they can merely be thrown in here and there, like anti-communist catchphrases.

This is an old straw Marx, to be set up so that any simpleton or professor emeritus can knock him down. The question remains: why would anybody bother to run through the tired old Aunt Sally routine again? Perhaps because disinterring the corpse of communism and delivering one more kicking to a mouldering Marx is about the only way anybody can hope to give capitalism an appearance of vitality today.

Since their moment of triumph at the end of the cold war, the champions of capitalism have become increasingly defensive, even apologetic, about the free market. Margaret Thatcher's famous declaration that "there is no alternative" is now widely accepted, but with a shrug of resignation rather than the ringing endorsement that she intended. The belief that "too much" economic growth can be a dangerous thing is held not only by the anti-capitalist protesters of Seattle and Genoa, but also by many of the international bankers and government ministers against whom they protest.

Yet, in some ways, the present culture of limits is worse than the rapacious capitalism of Marx's time. Marx did not believe, as Pipes and many others claim, that socialism or anything else was "inevitable". He did believe in the potential of humanity to make its own history, by overcoming the social barriers to progress. That is why, more than 150 years ago, Marx was far more upbeat about what he called the technological "wonders" of capitalist achievement than many right-wingers are today.

Our society has long since lost faith in its own achievements. It has lost faith not just in socialism, but in capitalism, in politics itself. The human subject of history has been reduced to a historical object, infantile victim of a world beyond control.

Much of what Marx wrote has little more direct relevance to the present day than does Pipes's tired polemic. However, one thing we would do well to take from the old man is his belief in the history-making potential of humanity. Never mind communism; the consequence of the culture of restraint, which now distorts the development of everything from biotechnology to the internet, is that we are not even close to probing the limits of capitalism. If Marx were alive today, he would surely be a ruthless critic of sustainable development, environmentalism and all the other fashionable "anti-capitalist" doctrines that justify the elite's loss of nerve and help hold back the potential for further progress within the existing system.

Mick Hume is the editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com)