Posted in Inverclyde Politics, Scottish Politics

John MacLean and Inverclyde

On Friday 30th November 1923 a stunned working class population of Scotland read in their newspapers that their great leader, John MacLean, was dead. He was only 44, but years of selfless toil in the service of the people coupled with the hardships he had suffered during successive terms of imprisonment had seriously undermined MacLean’s health. MacLean’s death was a blow to the working class movement, not only in Scotland, but throughout the world. The esteem in which he was held was reflected at his funeral which was attended by over 10,000 people. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid recalled MacLean with the following words, “Scotland has had few men whose names matter, or should matter, to intelligent people. But of these MacLean, next to Burns, was the greatest, and it should be of him with every Scotsman and Scotswoman to the end of time, as it was of Lenin in Russia. When you might talk to a woman who had been a young girl in 1917 and find that the name of Stalin lit no fires, but when you asked her if she had seen Lenin her eyes lit up and her reply was the Russian word which means both beautiful and red. Lenin, she said, was “krassivy, krassivy”. John MacLean too was “krassivy, krassivy”, a description no other Scot has ever deserved”.

At times it seems like everyone in Scotland claims to be following in the footsteps of MacLean, from the Communist Party on the left to the SNP on the right. This has led many to ask the question, was MacLean a socialist or a nationalist? To those who have studied the man, it is obvious he wasn’t a nationalist. His desire to see Scotland independent was not based on a narrow parochialism, but on a much broader understanding of the necessary eventual failure of the British capitalist class and on a belief in internationalism. In fact, the stand that MacLean took on the topic of Scottish independence in the first few decades of the 20th century are remarkably similar to the stance that the Scottish Socialist Party takes now in the first few decades of the 21st century. While this is now regarded as the obvious moral position of any true socialist, in MacLean’s day it was the opposite and led to many criticisms of the man from people who should really have stood by him. As the referendum has shown, history has proven MacLean to be correct, and so we see many people who were always dismissive of MacLean’s politics on independence (such as the ultra London centric Socialist Workers Party) now try to claim MacLean’s name.

While John MacLean’s legacy belongs to the whole of Scotland, he did of course have a special relationship with Inverclyde, and Greenock in particular. Early in 1908 MacLean issued his first pamphlet, The Greenock Jungle. In this early piece of writing MacLean displayed his characteristic concern for the plight of the working classes and anger at the selfishness and insidiousness of the profit chasing classes. The pamphlet itself was a strong indictment of the slaughterhouse methods and trade in diseased meats that was being carried out in Greenock at the time. This pamphlet was a result of the tireless campaigning MacLean did in Greenock. He could often be found at the gates of the slaughterhouse in what used to be Crown Street, addressing the workers as they arrived for or left work. One such worker is prominent in MacLean’s pamphlet, and I’m certainly interested in finding out more about the person.

The Greenock worker who featured so heavily in Maclean’s pamphlet was a Mr Houston. He plays a central role due to the fact that he was the one who exposed many of the practices being carried out by the owners of the slaughterhouses, which included selling diseased meat for human food. It was a practice that targeted poor people, as any diseased meat would be made into “cheap sausages” for being sold to the working classes. MacLean argued that this was a direct cause of tuberculosis among the working class, and as a result of his campaigning a government inspector was appointed to investigate the slaughterhouse conditions.   

Mr Houston deserves further mention for his role in these events. As a socialist, he was fully aware that he was risking his own job by exposing the practices of the slaughter house owners, but he did so anyway as he was driven on by a desire to protect his own class from disease and death. Mr Houston, after 31 years of service, was forced out of work as a result of his whistleblowing. His employer was a broker, who the owners of the slaughterhouses boycotted until they got rid of Mr Houston. When the pamphlet was published, Mr Houston had already been unemployed for 8 months, and MacLean makes an appeal in it to the good people of Greenock to assist in finding Mr Houston new employment. They certainly owed much to him, given his selfless defence of their health to his own detriment. So while the guilty owners continued to enjoy the profits of their enterprises, for only protecting others Mr Houston ended up in poverty. MacLean commented, “Why should the guilty one enjoy such a great privilege, while the innocent one must suffer the worries of unemployment, and the fears and forebodings accompanying the prospect of immediate financial ruin”. MacLean is commenting here on a theme that continues to this day, when we think about the persecution of the likes of Snowden and Manning. I don’t know what eventually became of Mr Houston, if anyone does know I would be delighted to hear from you.

Of course, this affair was not the only time MacLean would visit these parts. We find many references in the history books to MacLean coming here to address the working class. One such reference captures perfectly MacLean’s attitude and enthusiasm for politics. A member of the Scottish District Council recorded, “I stayed with John MacLean and I must say he is the most earnest worker for socialism I have ever met. He has just spent his seven weeks’ holiday preaching socialism in the North of England and Scotland. On my last day he arranged a sail down the Clyde, getting back to Greenock in time to give my last address. After I had left to catch my train to London, MacLean stepped onto the platform and went on with the meeting.”

MacLean also gave up much of his free time to give education to working men and women, and was often giving evening classes in Greenock on the topic of Marxist economics.  

For many though, MacLean will always be remembered as a great anti-war hero, and it is probably for this reason more than any that his memory is so dangerous to the British ruling class, to the extent that his name doesn’t even appear in the approved school text books from which our children learn about the first world war. There is as much a need today for MacLean’s message as there was during that terrible war. As we see our country drift closer and closer to militarism, we need those voices who speak out, those who see the working class as more than mere cannon fodder to be used by our imperialist masters in their illegal wars. The poppy, once a symbol of remembrance of all those wasted lives is now being used by right wing politicians as a symbol of British exceptionalism. We have TV adverts from companies such as Sainsbury’s portraying the First World War as a rather pleasant experience. And now we even have the Royal British Legion attempting to sanitise the war by releasing heavily edited versions of an anti war song, The Green Fields of France, which omits any criticism of the war.

What MacLean knew was that, despite the jingoism and propaganda from the British state, the First World War was not fought to keep us safe. It was a war for colonies, for spheres of influence, for markets. In other words, it was a war for profits. A great Scot and contemporary of MacLean said: “If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?” These sentiments were shared by MacLean.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, Britain had seen a great deal of left wing activity, and MacLean was certainly recognised as one of the stalwarts of the left. Between 1911 and 1914 trade union membership had doubled, and Brits were increasingly active in the internationalist socialist circles as well. At the Internationalist Socialist Congress in Copenhagen British socialists were amongst those who agreed that “should war break out, their duty is to intervene to promptly bring it to an end and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination”.

Instead, and much to MacLean’s dismay, when war did indeed break out, many of these same socialists entered their national governments to help the war effort. Leading British socialists, such as Hyndman, actively and enthusiastically supported the war – including speaking on recruitment platforms. While a majority of socialists in the country didn’t sink this low, many did argue that the war could be supported on grounds of defence, to keep us safe from supposed German aggression.

MacLean had no time for either position. He argued right from the start that the war couldn’t be defended on any terms. “Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. MacLean was clear that only socialists could bring about an acceptable end to the war. He insisted that a capitalist settlement of the war could only lead to further wars between the capitalist powers. His position stood out like a sore thumb at the time, but has proven to be correct as the settlement reached at the end of that war lead directly to that other great war of the 20th century – the second world war.

When we look back at the First World War through the eyes of the British state and its propaganda machine, the main stream corporate media, we would be forgiven for believing that there was universal and enthusiastic support for the war in the country. We’re told that “conscientious objectors” were widely hated and considered to be cowards. This of course is a complete misrepresentation of history. The war was in fact deeply unpopular with the population, and there were massive anti-war demonstrations all over the country. In fact, the anti-war movement during the First World War was even larger than what greeted New Labour when they made the despicable and illegal decision to take us to war in Iraq. The greatest threat to Lloyd George’s terrorist regime in London was not the German troops, but the anger of the British working class, which in Scotland was lead by MacLean. In order to impose their will and ensure their monarch got his war with his German cousin, the London government had to enact a series of emergency draconian laws to control the workers, which included suspending many civil liberties and making it illegal to strike.

To MacLean they were even more severe. For speaking out against their war, the British ruling class twice had MacLean jailed in Peterhead. The treatment he received while he was locked up was horrendous, he was drugged and force fed, and this time inside had such an adverse affect on his health that it contributed to his early death in 1923. That the ruling class would turn on MacLean is no surprise. He was after all, according to their own head of military intelligence Basil Thompson, the most dangerous man in Britain. Basil Thompson, we now know from declassified documents was involved in a deliberate campaign to smear MacLean by spreading rumours about his sanity.

The British State knew fine well that MacLean was sane, but the British left were only too keen to jump on this particular bandwagon. MacLean stood for an independent Scotland, which has earned him an everlasting vilification by the British left. All the British writing about MacLean declare him to be insane. Even today, the Socialist Workers Party continues to vilify MacLean due to his stance on independence.  Their reasoning is easy to understand, as due to their own political bigotry they are unable to view any Scot who does not want to be ruled by London as anything other than insane or fascist or racist. Any slander will do.

While the British left vilified MacLean, to the Scottish left he was a hero. Beyond this island he was held in the highest regard by international socialists. In recognition of his principled stand against the mass slaughter of ordinary people in the First World War the Bolsheviks elected MacLean an Honorary President of the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Adler, and Spiridonova, which was ecstatically received on his beloved Clyde; an area which had become known as Red Clydeside due to the likes of MacLean and many others. He became Lenin’s man in Scotland when the Soviet leader ordered that the Russian Consul be handed over to him. He was refused a visa to visit Russia; he could have travelled illegally but decided not to.

It was a tactical error on MacLean’s part and one which only increased his isolation in British politics. As it transpired, a certain Willie Gallagher took the opportunity to meet Lenin which MacLean had passed up. Like other revolutionaries of the period, MacLean hadn’t fully grasped the significance of the Bolshevik Party, even after the October revolution. With the encouragement of Lenin, Gallagher became instrumental in setting up the Communist Party of Great Britain, largely funded by Moscow wealth. The Bolsheviks regarded MacLean as the authentic voice of the revolution in Britain but he never joined the new party, although he remained a convinced revolutionary and supporter of Lenin.

His own party would never enjoy the success that MacLean’s popularity seemed to indicate it should. Party membership never amounted to more than a few hundred, and votes never more than a few thousand. His tactical errors in failing to meet with Lenin or secure funding from the Soviets were fatal to his political career. He continued to campaign for the Scottish working class right up to his death, but sadly left nothing behind in way of a Bolshevik style political organisation.

Rather than fade into political obscurity, however, MacLean remains every bit as relevant today as he was to those countless working class men who were sent to their unnecessary deaths during the Great War, or to Mr Houston whom he personally campaigned for when the bosses turned on him. Today, MacLean’s message about the necessity of revolution appeals to a new generation who are clamouring for real political change.

In May 1918, when facing jail for inciting the workers to transform war into revolution, he made his famous speech from the dock:

“I am not here as the accused – I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. In the next five years there is going to be a great world trade depression and the respective governments must turn more and more to the markets of the world to get rid of their produce. And in fifteen years time from the close of this war we are into the next war – if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone, can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world and retain the world.”

MacLean stood for internationalism, socialism and independence. That message is relevant now more than ever. We must keep the memory of MacLean alive, to ensure that the message did not die with the man.

Posted in Political Philosophy

Marxism, the Proletariat and the Working Class

“The proletariat is not the working class. All of Marxism has misinterpreted Marx in confusing the two”. (Bernard Steigler, 2010)

“The lower strata of the middle class – the small trades-people, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat…  Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

Marxism has a problem, and while many have noticed it Steigler addresses it in his 2010 work For a New Political Economy as part of his project of applying the Marxist method to the modern economy. Those who have held the mistaken belief that the proletariat is synonymous with the working class will be surprised by some of the conclusions Steigler (begins) to draw. In the short piece that follows I will try to sketch out the correct way to understand the proletariat, and think about what that means in today’s economic and social reality.

Now I don’t want to suggest that the entire history of Marxism is somehow redundant because of this common misunderstanding. It’s not. But to truly understand our reality it’s important to correct this misunderstanding. There are of course very good reasons why people have historically misinterpreted Marx in this way. Marx did at least two things. He gave us a scientific method with which to critique our society, and he applied that method to his own time and place. In Marx’s time and place, at the early stages of capitalism, it could have been correct that the proletariat was limited to the working class. That is just an observation, a snap shot if you will, of that particular moment in history. It should not mean that we forever use the terms working class and proletariat interchangeably. To do so would be to confuse Marx’s method with the particular results gained from that method at an arbitrary point in history. When we apply the Marxist method to the economies of today’s world we find that the processes of proletarianisation, the processes which act upon members of the proletariat, have acted upon a wider range of the society than in Marx’s day. This points to the simple fact that the proletariat is wider than merely the working class.

A very simple Marxist definition of “proletariat” is those who do not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour. There are some well known objections to this definition, such as pointing out certain groups of people who don’t seem to fit into either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. I am of the opinion that this simple definition is indeed inadequate, but can be salvaged by in some way making reference to the processes of proletarianisation. That is an intuitive feeling I have, I don’t pretend to have found an unproblematic way to solve the problem. Needless to say the existence of the proletariat is not in any doubt, the history of class struggle is ample evidence that the proletariat is a real aspect of our society. Although for the sake of philosophical completeness I would like to see a definition that truly captures the essence of the proletariat, and that is where I find the simple definition above to be lacking.

So what are these processes of proletarianisation? Most of us who have been taught Marxist thought (sadly not nearly enough of us) will probably have been taught about alienation. It’s quite a simple avenue by which to gain access to Marxism. Simply put, alienation is a sort of estrangement of people from aspects of their humanity. This is usually taught in regards a worker’s relation to his own labour.  In capitalist society each worker becomes an instrument or a thing, not a person. The advent of Fordian or “assembly line” production took this further. Each part of the production process was identified and delegated to different workers, with none of the workers knowing the full “beginning to end” of the production. In Steigler’s terminology, the workers had become separated from savoir-faire; literally “knowledge of how to do” although better understood as “skills”. The craftsmen of old had owned their own labour, had known their endeavours intimately and made a living by selling the products of those endeavours. Not so with the newly emerged working class. They didn’t own their own labour; they sold it to the capitalist class in return for just enough money to survive. Further, another process was becoming evident, one that removed knowledge from the workers and placed it in systems out with their control. The result is alienation, the processes that result in alienation can be thought of as proletarianisation. The proletariat are those upon whom the processes of proletarianisation act, regardless of whether or not they have resulted in some form of alienation yet.

That is the account of proletarianisation or alienation that is typically taught at schools and colleges. It is one very much rooted in Marx’s own experience of life in the Industrial Age. When we consider modern times, the Information Age, we see the same processes in action – but now in different ways. In the Industrial Age it was skilled workers who became estranged from their labour, in the Information Age we see this occurring with knowledgeable workers. Information technology has reached a stage whereby anything we could want to know is easily available at the touch of a few buttons (or a touchscreen). When we phone a company for specialist advice, often we find ourselves talking to someone in a call centre somewhere who merely inputs information you give them into a computer and then respond to you by following the on screen prompts. We no longer speak to experts. Once again, knowledge has been removed from the worker and placed in external systems (literally into the computer systems in this case). The result being workers who are estranged from the knowledge they are working with.

This is isn’t restricted to workers either. It extends into our lives away from work. How many of us shop online now? This probably involves simply buying whatever recommendation the system makes. I’m certainly not immune to this. I just bought flights to Russia. It was as simple as typing “Glasgow to St Petersburg” into Google on my iPhone, then purchasing one of the (cheaper) results. My knowledge of making travel arrangements is now reduced to knowledge of how to use my phone. All other aspects of that knowledge (such as knowledge of routes, which airlines fly where, etc) are contained in the IT systems. Knowledge of how to get myself from here to there has begun to be removed from me and put into the modern information systems. It’s not only travel arrangements where this is happening either. As more of our consumerist habits take place online, so more of our savoir-vivre (“knowledge of how to live”, to borrow another of Steigler’s phrases) is lost to us and relocated to external systems.  (Arguably this proletarianisation of consumers actually started with the advent of supermarkets.)The result, and one which Marx could not have predicted, is that it’s not just as workers that we find ourselves in the proletariat, it is also as consumers.

It is not just among members of the bourgeoisie that we find evidence of the spread of proletarianisation either. The 2008 economic crash suggests that these processes are now working on those many of us would consider to be the elites. Just think of the confusion when the crash happened. Many of the so called experts just didn’t see it coming. And in hindsight why would they have? Far from being experts, they are simply the assembly line equivalents of the financial industry. They may know their own little part of the gig inside out, but they lack that “beginning to end” knowledge that assembly line production removed from the factory worker. The financial elites, or at least the lower strata of those elites, have been deprived of the knowledge of their own financial industry, and without that bigger picture view they were unable to see the trends careering towards global financial catastrophe. Many bankers, simply responding to data and prompts much like the call centre worker, have become grossly overpaid proles!

Posted in Political Philosophy

Socialist Language (updated version)

I have noticed a rise in the number of articles recently that make an appeal for socialists to stop using socialist jargon. This has coincided with a large number of (mostly younger) socialists demanding that no “old language” be used at all as it (somehow) harms socialism. I have been accused personally of being harmful to the cause because of the language I use. I challenge those making the accusations to go through any of my writing or radio broadcasts, all of which are freely available, and point out to me the harmful language that I use and suggest what I replace it with. So far none of them have taken me up on this offer. I guess that’s because that while I write from a (post-)Marxist perspective I tend to use my normal daily language to do so. Sure I use the occasional “comrade” when greeting party members, but I’ve yet to be given a credible reason why I shouldn’t. If you don’t like it I won’t call you “comrade”, but don’t tell me I can’t use it at all!

This is almost always related to another problem, those who say things like “Marxism is irrelevant today”. It tends to be the same people saying these things. They will tell you quite freely that they don’t understand Marx, but without any sense of the irony will make grand sweeping statements about how irrelevant Marx is anyway. Now while it’s true that not all socialists self-identify as Marxists, since at least the First World War all socialism has to one extent or another been influenced by Marx. We may argue about the degree to which Marx is still relevant (I will do something approaching that below) but it is astounding ignorance to claim the entire history of Marxist thought is now irrelevant.

When writing about what sort of language socialists should be using, there is a risk of setting off quite a heated debate about what at first looks like a fairly mundane topic. There are bigger things to worry about surely? Privatisation of the NHS, low wages, zero hours contracts, illegal wars, nuclear weapons stored on our territory against our will, discrimination, racism, etc. With all of that going on, why worry so much about whether or not the proper way to greet a fellow socialist is a friendly, “Hi comrade”? Looks can be deceiving. Language is incredibly important to all of us; both at a personal level and at the level at which certain groups are able to control society.

At the personal level language is how we ‘interface’ with our environment; it is how we connect the inner workings of our own mind with the outside world. It is how we think, it is how we communicate our own thoughts with other people and it is how we assimilate what is being shared with us. There is of course a need, therefore, to find the best way to express our socialist arguments so that others are able to properly assimilate them into their own understanding of the world. That is the spirit in which the younger socialists I mentioned above have made their appeal that we avoid certain aspects of our socialist language.  We have to be careful, however, not to put up barriers to those who are already totally comfortable using the so-called obscure socialist terminology. If we tell them they are not allowed to use that language we are effectively stopping them from taking part in the debate. We are removing from them their own means of thinking about the issues and communicating their thoughts on those issues.

At the level of social control language is crucial, as those who control the language control the society. George Orwell was perhaps the first to recognise this, and his invented language of Newspeak in the novel 1984 was an attempt to display this thought. Recall that Newspeak consisted solely of jargon in which heretical ideas became impossible to express or even to think. In today’s world, real life examples of Newspeak are rife in the jargon laden languages of politicians, business leaders and media who limit language in order to preserve their own power and privilege. Their demand that any criticisms be translated into their own language before they’ll take them seriously is intended to crush the possibility of articulating ideas dangerous to the status quo. My concern with those on the left who demand that we translate our language in this way is that they have been naively convinced by the demands of these people. Their arguments about why we should change our language usually tend to centre round feelings of embarrassment and a belief that we’ll be taken seriously if our language were to mimic that found in the modern media. The demands of the powerful, however, were designed deliberately to invoke this sort of reaction in the knowledge that if we do give up enough of our language then we have essentially conceded control.

Before Orwell, Marx himself had understood that the “bourgeoisie” language had evolved in such a way as to obscure the realities of “real life” (although he never made the connection to social control that Orwell later would). During his engagement with the problem of democracy, Marx tackled the larger issue that he called “bourgeoisie categories of thought”, which are essentially ways in which the new capitalist states categorised their ideas of freedom, equality and liberty. In The German Ideology he explores how these categories actually obscure our understanding of the realities of social conditions and relations. The “bourgeoisie” language (or “modern” language in today’s debate) was therefore unsuitable for an account of life as it is actually lived under capitalism (Marx uses the term ‘civil society’ to refer to this reality).

So this debate about the language we use is not new; it has been hotly debated by socialists for well over one hundred years now. In the current incarnation of the debate it’s argued, “It’s not that we should attempt to “dumb down” our arguments so much as that we should be trying to make these arguments relevant to the day to day struggles of the working person.” When framed in this way the argument certainly has a sort of intuitive appeal to it, although it completely misses the point that this is exactly why socialists (Marxists in particular) have historically wanted to avoid the bourgeoisie/modern jargon (again, think of Marx and ‘civil society’). If we want people to agree with and accept our message then of course we have to present it to them in a way that they will understand it. However, I think this type of argument is in danger of becoming elitist and extremely dismissive of the working class. It is the type of argument made by champagne socialists, the sort who think they are superior to the “poor workers”. The working class do not generally struggle to understand complex ideas or language. Just go into Tesco, pick up a “hobby” magazine (about fishing or photography as an example) and look at the language in there. It is incredibly technical and complicated at times, but that’s no barrier to us down here in the working class from understanding it. If we don’t need to constantly translate fishing and photography magazines into a simpler language, why the constant demand we do so for our socialist arguments? The claim, I guess, is that by using language that is obscure we are behaving in a rather self defeating way. Our “obscure socialist language”, some have said, alienates us from the people we are trying to reach because it is just irrelevant to their day to day struggles.

The difference of opinion that this issue generates could be due to the issue is not actually being as straightforward as it first appears. Is the problem that socialist language is irrelevant, or is the problem that it is obscure? These are clearly two different problems, but I believe that most appeals to change our socialist language are guilty of conflating the two. If there are two different issues here, it could well be the case that they require two different solutions.

Consider for a moment an unrelated example: phlogiston. In the past, students of chemistry would talk of grand and complicated theories about phlogiston, which was believed to be an element stored in physical objects and that was released during combustion. Of course, talk of phlogiston must sound extremely obscure. How many people have ever heard it mentioned? It is also completely irrelevant as we now know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. The correct thing to do with regards phlogiston language was to stop using it.

The question seems to be, how much does socialist language resemble phlogiston language? Phlogiston language was both obscure and irrelevant. This does not seem to be the case with socialist language. No doubt contained within the millions of words written about socialism we will come across some aspects which are both obscure and irrelevant. The correct thing to do with those aspects is to stop using them (if anyone still does). That seems like an obvious truth, one that doesn’t really need to be argued for. The vast majority of socialist language is clearly not of this sort. It may be obscure, or it may be irrelevant, but it is rarely both.

Some famous quotes from Marx might help illuminate this point. Let’s start with, “In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety” as found in Das Kapital. If you were to give this quote to people and ask them to explain it, most I’m sure would be extremely puzzled by it. Its meaning is quite obscure, at least to those not familiar with Marxist economics. Marx is talking about what today we would call Ponzi schemes. In fact, even putting it in today’s language and calling it a Ponzi scheme rather than stockjobbing doesn’t really make it any less obscure. It is however totally relevant. It is exactly these sorts of economic practices that can wreck national or global economies, and as such exactly the sort of thing socialists should be trying to warn the working class about. Its obscurity does not seem to translate into a reason to stop talking about it, and no-one seems to be suggesting that we stop using the phrase “Ponzi scheme”.

Contrast this with, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, the famous line found in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), although first used as a slogan by Louis Blanc in 1851. There is no obscurity here; the meaning is blatantly obvious (hence why it makes a good slogan). It is, however, a slogan that we should probably stop using. If we are aiming to make life better for the masses then this quote is totally irrelevant, as a real life implementation of this would be no Utopia. Arguably the Soviet Gulags were organised on this principle, where prisoners were given the basic minimum of their needs while it was demanded that each work to their maximum ability, until such time as death intervened. A state of affairs that in no way would make the life of the masses any better were it to be implemented generally!

Even if we were to be generous to Marx, and grant that this principle would not result in an über-Gulag type society, it is still not clear that this principle bears any relevance to the modern worker. While Marx gave us a scientific critique of capitalism, which enabled him to predict many subsequent developments, one thing which he failed to predict was the rise of consumerism. Today workers do not work just to meet their needs. They also work to satisfy their desires, such as a holiday abroad every year, the latest gadgets, a nicer car, etc. (Without going into the details, Marx was of course aware of a difference between needs and desires. In fact, his account of the development of culture was based on desires. This sort of desire however has a different psychological explanation than consumerist desires.  Some post-Marxists differentiate between desires and drives to make a distinction.) While combating the excesses of consumerism is of course a battle that socialists should take on, to only promise people that their needs will be met in a socialist society seems to fundamentally misunderstand the psychology of the modern worker and is very unlikely to win much support. This seems like the sort of thing we should stop saying despite it not being obscure in the slightest, and despite it not being the type of language that those suggesting we make changes have in mind.

I don’t suggest that any of the above is conclusive. I do hope that it highlights that the issue is not as straight forward or as obvious as some have claimed. There does certainly seem to be a case to demand that we drop all “irrelevant” language from our discourse. It is not always obvious, however, which aspects of our socialist language are irrelevant, and when it is irrelevant its irrelevance is usually unrelated to whether or not it is obscure.

Now, after saying all that and after expressing how important I think this debate is, I want to suggest that we don’t overstate the importance of saving particular words from those who are intent on trimming our socialist vocabulary. Marxism is not akin to a religious doctrine, it is not something whose specific content is to be taken as a universal truth. Instead, Marxism is a method for understanding our social-economic reality. It is the tools rather than the finished product. So in this sense at least we don’t need to worry about saving every piece of jargon, so long as we have another ready to take its place. We should be wary, however, that nothing quite captures the meaning of a word like that word itself. When we stop ourselves from using certain words, we are left with words which only give us an approximation of the meaning we are trying to convey. If we use too many approximations it is unclear whether we can actually claim to be conveying our message at all. So if we are to make any changes to our socialist language, we had better be damn sure that the Marxist method can be properly understood and learned in our “new” language, whatever that may be.