Let’s stop abusing holy prophets & Marx

Posted on February 1, 2015


The Q’uran and the Prophet Mohammed cannot be held responsible for the Jihadi atrocities of Boko Haram or the Islamic State groups any more than can the Christian Gospels and Jesus be held responsible for apartheid or the Ku Klux Klan. To claim otherwise is simply illogical.

Yet the murderous behaviour of Josef Stalin, of Cambodia’s Pol Pot and the bureaucratic barbarism in North Korea continues to be blamed by many on the writings of Karl Marx. However, at the same time, much of the labour movement and most of the many fragmented Left groups regard such states as “socialist” while much of the business community denigrates them as “communist”.

The issue of what is meant by these terms is even more pertinent in South Africa now that the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) proposes acting as a catalyst for the formation of some form of “socialist movement”. In April, encouraged by Numsa, a gathering of trade unionists, human rights campaigners and the various groups and grouplets that see themselves on the political Left, plan to come together to establish a “socialist alternative”.

It proposes to be an alternative to anything political, social and economic currently on offer. And if previous and current debates are anything to go by, many references in April will be to Brazil and Venezuela, to Cuba, China and perhaps Bolivia. These tend to be seen by many in the local labour movement as epitomising some form of socialism. There may even be a genuflection or two to the former Soviet Union and its satellites as offering a desired alternative.

This issue of whether an alternative exists also emerged at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month as the wealthiest bosses on earth gathered to ensure the best ways of propping up a clearly collapsing system. Significantly, there was no condemnatory mention of state intervention, of socialism or communism. In fact, since at least 2012, the economic oligarchy at Davos has been most accepting of state intervention and even degrees of control.

Without hugely expensive bailouts and, in the case of Britain, nationalisation of some banks, the entire capitalist system might have been dangerously compromised. It was only the blinkered ideologues of the far Right that labelled such intervention “socialist”. So when, in a televised BBC debate in Davos last week one of the elite participants referred to countries such as China as “state directed capitalism”, there was nary an eyebrow raised.

Yet this was a statement of which Karl Marx might have approved. His collaborator, Frederick Engels, most certainly would have.

Because it was Engels who in 1878, wrote that nationalisation — state control — did not equal socialism; that it was not the ownership and control of an enterprise that defined it, but the underlying dynamic by which it operated. Any enterprise, based on competition and the need to accumulate profits in order better to compete, was capitalist, whether it was owned by an individual, a company or the state. To think otherwise, he also said, amounted to “a kind of spurious socialism”.

It should be recalled, for example, that more of apartheid South Africa’s industrial infrastructure was nationalised than was in “socialist” Cazechoslovakia. So if a degree of state ownership made Czechoslovakia socialist, then, it has been argued, a higher degree of such control in South Africa made apartheid socialist.

But various groups, mainly associated with the labour movement, have clung, and continue to cling, to the idea that state ownership and control equals socialism. Of course, state ownership in a parliamentary democracy can provide the voters, most of them workers, with a bit more leverage on the government, but nothing more.

What Marx and Engels argued for was “extreme democracy” politically. This would mean “worker control” of every facet of society since workers are the majority in the global population. Workers, collectively, would decide how resources would be used and shared and anyone elected to a leading position would be answerable to, and recallable by, the electors.

Is such a world desirable? Is it possible? And, if it is possible, how can it be achieved? These are the questions that need to be debated rather than continuing to bandy about emotional rhetoric and empty slogans.