Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
It takes a real effort of will, nowadays, to recall how fashionable Marxism-Leninism used to be in Western intellectual circles. Revolutionary socialism was seen, not only as morally superior to capitalism but also – incredible as this appears from our perspective – as more productive. Otherwise clever men would insist, with stunning imperviousness to the evidence, that instead of having two competing textile manufacturers, the government ought to pick the more efficient one and avoid duplication.
If one rarely hears that argument today, it is because communism has failed so wretchedly in practice. It didn’t just make its denizens poorer; it also turned out to be unenforceable other than through a police state.
On one level, the Western academics who espoused it knew this. They were aware the gulags, of the forced famine in Ukraine, of the dogs and mines and guns deployed to stop people crossing the Berlin Wall. But, with that peculiar trahison des clercs which disfigured scholarly life for decades, they chose to look away.
The man who arguably did the most to force the world to confront the true nature of Soviet Communism was the British poet and historian Robert Conquest, who has just died. Conquest got a dose of the Marxist bacillus in youth, and it immunised him for life. His exposés of Stalin’s crimes may ultimately have been more influential than Orwell’s satires or Solzhenitsyn’s novels, because they were so well-documented and so tightly reasoned. No one familiar with Conquest’s corpus could maintain, as student Lefties used to do, that proper communism had never really been tried, and that the USSR operated on the basis of some kind of state capitalism. Conquest ineluctably showed that, in the Comecon states, theory had found brutal practice.
Conquest was a serious, published poet, and fond of limericks. In one almost playful verse, he summarised the Soviet Union as neatly as anyone has done.
There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
Of course, there are still one or two ideologies that hold that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The jihadi sympathisers hold to that creed as, in a different way, do those eco-loons who want to reduce the human population by 80 per cent. But these people are recognised for the extremists they are. Revolutionary socialism, by contrast, was a highly respectable creed – so much so that, in academic circles, its critics had to learn to keep quiet.
Today, we can see pretty clearly that – setting aside the obvious point that human beings are not eggs – there is not a single case where the omelette actually emerged. The fact that this seems so obvious to us is testimony to how thoroughly Conquest and his fellow Cold Warriors won the argument.
It’s worth reprising the great man’s Three Laws of Politics.
- Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
- Any organisation not explicitly Right-wing sooner or later becomes Left-wing.
- The easiest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucracy is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
I’d quibble slightly with the third. I’d amend it to “to assume that it is controlled by a cabal opposed to its notional aims” – very often, the survival and expansion of a bureaucracy is at odds with its stated mission. And I might amend the second, too: “Any organisation that doesn’t have to make a profit sooner or later becomes Left-wing”. (The examples Conquest liked to give were Amnesty International and the Church of England, though it applies to almost all NGOs).
The first, though, is sheer genius. We all recognise, in our own lives, the value of what Edmund Burke called prejudice. We could barely function if we tried to think through every situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the inherited wisdom of our ancestors.
Consider, for example, a far-Left member of Bob Crowe’s old union, the RMT. When it comes to driving the Tube, does he want to tear up past practice and, say, install a driverless system? Of course not. But, when it comes to politics, different rules apply, and he is quite happy to demand some abstract theory that has never succeeded.
Marxism, uniquely among political philosophies, defined itself as a science. To its adherents, its propositions were not speculative but empirical. As a good Hegelian, Marx saw his forecasts as part of an inexorable historical process. Yet every one – every one – of them turned out to be false.
Capitalism was supposed to destroy the middle class, leaving a tiny clique of oligarchs ruling over a vast proletariat. In fact, capitalism has enlarged the bourgeoisie wherever it has been practised. Capitalism was supposed to lower living standards for the majority. In fact, the world is wealthier than would have been conceivable 150 years ago. The whole market system was supposed to be on its last legs when Marx and Engels were writing. In fact, it was entering a golden age, hugely benefiting the poorest. The living standard of a Briton on benefits today is higher than that of a Briton on average wages in the 1930s.
And yet, astonishingly, the Marxist memes remain, promulgated online by people who are often unaware of their provenance. When someone airily tells you, for example, that capitalism depends on low wages, he’s not just wrong (compare wages in North Korea to wages in South Korea); he is unconsciously quoting Das Kapital. When someone facilely tweets that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer (actually, the poor are getting much richer thanks to free markets) he is trotting out the demonstrably false Marxist theory of immiseration.
It will take time to root out some of these errors. Perhaps it can’t be done at all. Our political opinions are, to a greater degree than we like to admit, simply products of our personalities. Some people are determined to see every success as a swindling of someone else, every transaction as an exploitation, every exercise in freedom as a violation of some ideal plan, every tradition as a superstition. No evidence will sway them. But for those to whom facts and experience matter, the argument has been settled.
I realise that, unwontedly, I haven’t managed a single reference to Shakespeare, so let me end with Conquest’s brilliant summary – again, in limerick form – of Jaques’s Seven Ages of Man.
Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.