August 04, 2004

Capital defence

I got Capital out of the library last week. I first got it out of a library about twenty-five years ago, when I was intimidated by the largeness of the volume and the smallness of the type. So, like Harold Wilson (but without his First in PPE) I never got round to reading it, other than the tenth chapter, on the struggle for the ten-hour day, which Marx himself recommended we read as an introduction. The ten-hour day later became an eight-hour day, eight hours being coincidentally the scheduled duration of my coach journey to Scarborough next Sunday, which should give me plenty of time to get stuck into the first nine chapters.

It’s not a complete exaggeration to say that Marx wrote Capital because he had nothing better to do, and that’s something worth bearing in mind when people - few of whom will ever have read a word of Marx - tell you that he’s outdated and irrelevant to the modern world. Marx arrived in England as a political activist and refugee who would have liked nothing more than to get involved in radical politics in this country, insofar as the police would have allowed it – and he did know a number of the working-class leaders and organisers of the time. He arrived only a few years after the largest single general strike of the nineteenth century, the “Plug Plot” of 1842, and only a few months after the huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common. He must have expected great things to occur.

In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Chartism died, almost overnight, even though its demands were not met until decades later. The working-class movement shrivelled. The great meetings, the great subscription newspapers that had characterised the previous period disappeared. It was to be nearly twenty years before the Trades Union Congress was formed – and these were not twenty years of industrial upheaval – and large-scale unionism among the poorly paid never showed its face until after Marx was dead. The First International never added up to much more than a small number of groups with a small number of members, and Marx and Engels had it killed off rather than let it fall into the hands of the anarchists. (Where the labour movement is weak, the anarchists thrive.) By the time the Paris Commune revitalised Marx, Capital had been written and published and had made Marx’s name.

What had happened? Firstly, the defeat of the radical movements had happened – it will nearly always take a generation or more to recover from great defeats, as the generation who fought for them are disillusioned and exhausted, while the generation after that grow up taking the absence of radicalism for granted. (Meanwhile, the new generation of the affluent classes will take their success, and their right to it, for granted, and a smugness, a triumphalism, will come over their political thought and the social attitudes. This is as all-pervasive now as it was then. One doubts that the Times is so very much different in 2004 to what it was in 1854.)

Secondly, the economic success that made social peace possible. When you look at historical maps, it’s in the second half of the nineteenth century that Africa really started turning pink, and it was then that cheap goods started flowing into Britain on a grand scale. It was also then that Britain’s industrial strength reached the point where – with the intervention of the heroes of Marx’s tenth chapter – the horrors of child labour and seven-day weeks were no longer required, and both the purchase of goods, and the time to enjoy them, began to be enjoyed by working people. Inequality may have risen faster than living standards, but life improved for the large majority of people. When we see the historical pictures of barefoot children in Hartlepool, or of disgusting tenements in the East End, we should remember that it wasn’t like that for everyone, and that those who escaped the worst conditions of Victorian society included a large proportion of the working population.

They were not comfortable, for working people never really are unless they escape the insecurity involved in selling their labour power to an employer, but they were better off than they had been, and cleaner than they had been, and less tired than they had been, and well aware of all of these. And they were not black, or Irish, or Jewish, nearly all of those who felt happy with their lot. For the third strand of middle-Victorian social peace was racism, though the term was unknown then.

What I am saying – what I am obviously saying – is that as it was then, so it is now. It’s popular to talk about “modernity”, or “new times”, or any numbers of concepts and phrases that basically say this: people are much better off than before, they identify with their personal possessions, they are different from people in the past who used to be poor, and have strong unions, and identify with socialist politics. The idea is that there has been a qualitative change in the way we live, that society, and therefore the politics to which it gives expression, has altered irrevocably.

But what is wrong with it, as so often with ideas that make comparison with a particular version of the past, is that the past was not what it is claimed to be. When Marx wrote, it wasn’t all poverty and desperation and fighting on the streets. It was cheap food from exotic places, it was a piano in the corner, it was Sunday at the cricket match, a son in the Army and a picture of Queen Victoria on the wall. Soon, it was to be the music hall, the popular press, free primary education for all (Forster’s Education Act comes just three years after Capital was published) and voting for the Conservative and Unionist candidate for fear of the Irish people in the neighbouring street. Or moving to the suburbs to get away from them.

And the left? There was no left. The Labour Representation Committee is not formed until 1900. In all this half-century which we have come to identify with the exploitation of labour, its imagined dissatisfaction with its lot had no political expression whatsoever. Unless, perhaps, we include the tiny groups which Engels was involved with - which didn’t exist at all during Marx’s lifetime – and of which Morris wrote in News From Nowhere:

there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented.
Who controls the present, controls the past. The people who have done best out of Thatcherism and its aftermath believe that everything has changed - and that consequently, nothing will ever change again. But they thought the same thing, for the same reasons, when Marx was working away at the British Museum, because there seemed to be nothing better to do. And it is possible that, to understand the present epoch every bit as much as to understand the age of Marx, there is nothing better to do than to read Capital.


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