Marxism no magic bullet
Single cure will not fix South Africa’s litany of problems in one shot
WHEN I was at university in Durban in the early 1980s, almost all of the most interesting lecturers were Marxists.
This wasn’t just in the sociology department either – though that was, of course, Marxist central.
My favourite English lecturer was a Marxist, my African studies lecturers were Marxists (obviously), and even the economics department was kind of Marxist.
My wonderful music professor was, you guessed it, Marxist.
The very real fight against apartheid needed an intellectual foundation that could elucidate the fractious social predicament in which we found ourselves, and hold out a promise for the future. Rather like now. All of this old history came rushing back to me on the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death last weekend.
By the 1990s the superiority of free-market countries, not just for the rich but for the poor, was becoming undeniable.
By a fluke the global argument had turned into a social experiment – two countries, one in the East, one in the West, had been divided in two.
One half of both Germany and Korea had decided to go capitalist, the other half communist, just as you would if you were conducting a scientific study.
The result was not just grinding poverty on the communist side but also autocracy, cruel repression, queues for everything, limitations on thought and creativity and endless lies.
There were some social improvements, but they were obliterated by deathly failure, famines and jails everywhere.
On the other side of the wall there were plenty of problems, but freedom and creativity bloomed in the diversity.
Everywhere – in science, technology, the arts, and, importantly, business.
Marx’s world seemed then a disastrous and horrible mistake.
And yet Marxism has made a comeback, particularly in SA.
The promise of a glorious revolution that solves all social ills is too tantalising to pass up.
Even if it isn’t called Marxism, you can see it heavily influencing EFF policies, many ANC politicians and not a few who call themselves liberals.
They support state banks, heavily state-owned mines and the ridiculous idea of a sovereign wealth fund. (How can a government that borrows R500-million a day suddenly start what is in effect a national savings fund? It’s just absurd).
The guiding light here is Marxism, or perhaps more accurately Marxist-Leninism; a super-powerful state dominating the economy, gloriously pushing parts of it around as if they are chess pieces, providing endless jobs against a rational plan.
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution.
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Heady stuff. Yet, all wrong.
Marx’s biggest failure was technical; he predicted that the rate of profit would continually fall since companies would compete each other out of existence, and it would all come crashing down in devastation.
Instead, Adam Smith’s contrary vision of individuals seeking their own benefit, inadvertently helping each other move forward towards a better and, importantly, more moral universe proved true.
The rate of profit did fall, but popped up again somewhere else, and someone else took advantage of that, and so on.
Capitalism turned out to be a bubbling stew, its excesses reformed by democratic consensus and legislative interventions. Yet, Marxism has remained. As an article in The Economist pointed out recently, his ideas are now more relevant than they have been for decades.
The post-war consensus that shifted power from capital to labour and produced a “great compression” in living standards is fading.
Globalisation and the rise of a virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more seems to be out of control, the magazine noted.
Marx’s argument that capitalism is essentially rent-seeking doesn’t seem totally out of place in a world in which many managers get paid enormous amounts for doing very little, where politicians get endless back-handers, where bankers and lawyers devise schemes to insert themselves into every kind of money flow.
For South African politicians, the pull of these ideas leads them into a terrible trap: the notion that there is a magic bullet out there that can fix all our problems in one shot.
But there is no magic bullet. We all want what is best for us all.
South Africans need to generate some confidence, self-belief and joy in their bubbling stew, as unique and difficult as it is.
ý Tim Cohen is the Business Day senior editor. This article was first published in the Business Day.