Half Marx

Recently I came across the following words by Karl Marx, quoted in a local campaign against the bigoted, insular spirit of our age:

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit,  the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.  This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

In the interests of relevance, ‘this antagonism’ is glossed as hostility towards immigrants and refugees. So far so good. However, being unfamiliar with the passage, I carry out an internet search and find the source to be a letter written in April 1870 whose context and purpose do not translate so neatly to the present day.

To begin with, the antagonism referred to by Marx was directed not towards immigration in general or other races per se, but quite specifically at the Irish. The difference may appear small but it troubles me. Regarding accuracy as optional or inconvenient is a slippery slope. Putting words into someone’s mouth invites the charge of deceit, diverting attention from the argument being made. Of course, there are similarities between the two cases. The Irish had been driven from their homes by poverty and famine, both consequences of British rule, enabling parallels to be drawn with some forms of modern immigration. But only some. Lumping together refugees, economic migrants and targeted recruitment is a tactic of the Right designed to replace analysis with antipathy. Fudging those distinctions helps no one, even with a better end in view.

Secondly, the encouragement of hostility to which Marx refers had a no less particular motive. The ruling class derived much of its wealth, and therefore power, from estates in Ireland and feared being dispossessed by a nationalist government in Dublin, thereby losing their hold on England as well. By rousing popular opinion against the Fenians, landlords contrived to make the proletariat complicit in its own oppression.

Or so Marx contended. I am neither equipped nor inclined to argue the point, although his apparent conflation of aristocrats and capitalists makes for good polemic and bad history. No, what concerns me here is its application to the present day, when the forces ranged against social democracy look somewhat less monolithic. The pulpit, in the form of organised religion, is at worst timidly conformist while many voices, ranging from Pope Francis to individuals in the Church of England, cry out against the injustices being perpetrated in the name of patriotism and self-interest. Meanwhile the modern equivalent of ‘the comic papers’ are generally progressive in their attitudes, and liable to be lambasted for it by the Daily Mail. In fact, the cultural establishment is mostly at odds with modern populism, whose cheerleaders claim the status of insurgents against an out-of-touch elite. In other words, the picture is more complex than in Marx’s time and the Left has no monopoly on claims to victimhood.

Nonetheless, large sections of the print media do incite hostility towards ‘the other’ just as they have always done, to sell papers and advance their interests more generally. But here, too, a change has taken place since Marx’s time, when their aim was to defend an entrenched position. Now their project is to bring about a re-ordering of the world, overturning the gains that have been made in tax-funded public provision. Once again, the Left is forced into the unaccustomed position of defending aspects of the status quo while its opponents don the mantle of insurgency that appeals to the discontented. Historical analogy is all well and good, but luxuriating in the certainties of the past is seldom a recipe for clear thinking.

Perhaps I am making too much of this, the differences between then and now only of academic interest. But we live in febrile times when fake news, post-truth politics and Twitter blurts are threatening to swamp mature, fact-based deliberation. All of this has been widely lamented, but with little sense of how the tide can be stemmed. And because it is hard not to become infected, with social media appealing to our worst instincts in this regard, there is a danger that discourse on the democratic left (which has form of its own when it comes to loose talk and conspiracy theories) will slip into the same bad habits, taking things out of context, fighting liar with liar. The best riposte to the forces of Trumpery is being more accurate, thoughtful and precise than before, even at the expense of rhetorical effect. Better to err on the side of pedantry than be dragged down to their level.

[Note: see here for the full text of Marx’s letter.]