Marx, Engels were prophetic thinkers

May 29, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Marx and Engels' "The Communist Manifesto," which is 150 years old this year, did not change the world for which it was written. The manifesto proved nonsense as forecast of the workings of a supposed dialectic of history, and it was disastrous in its political consequences. It produced the utopian totalitarianism of Lenin and Stalin, with systematic and destructive attacks on every rival conception of reform.

The leaders inspired by Marx and Engels understood that while it was profitable to them to preach anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, the real threat to them came from the social democratic, Christian democratic and liberal reform movements of 19th- and 20th-century Europe and America.

However, the ideological identity that Marx and Engels had given to communism, as the sole historical alternative to capitalism, meant that the capitalists themselves came to believe this, and when the Communist movement failed, 80 years after it had come to power in Russia, this seemed an unqualified validation of capitalism.

On the other hand, virtually everyone today would acknowledge that Marx and Engels were prophetic analysts of capitalism. Their account of a restless, innovative, internationalist industrial

system, constantly destroying and re-creating itself, is actually a better description of today's globalized free-market capitalism than of the capitalism of 1848, when they wrote.

Predatory system

Their description of a conscienceless and predatory system finds echo among globalism's critics today, even those who believe, with Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative to the system which prevails among the industrialized nations and in a large part of the non-Western world.

Many people concerned for the social and human devastation that globalization can produce, and its indifference or hostility to ethical and social considerations, have nonetheless concluded that the technological, economic and political forces behind it are irresistible.

Most voters in the industrial nations undoubtedly take for granted the system in which they live. The winners rejoice in its opportunities. The losers may resent their loss of security, and the market's destruction of familiar social structures and values, but find it hard to think that anything can be done to change what is happening.

A consequence of Marxism's collapse has been that it has seemed to rule out critiques of modern capitalism as irrelevant and make proposals to reform it seem futile or utopian. A basic division of opinion exists today between those who think that a choice of society does still exist and those who believe that no choices remain: that, in the famous formulation of Francis Fukayama (and in a sense he did not intend, but which was implicit in what he wrote), history has ended.

This division exists inside countries but also divides certain nations from others, notably in setting what can be called the lTC Atlantic countries -- the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and certain others -- from those where voters are prepared to believe that contemporary capitalism can or should be changed, or at least that it can be reconciled with the model of social capitalism, or welfare capitalism, which emerged in Western Europe and Scandinavia after World War II.

The Germans and French are leaders of the latter group. The next German national election, in September, will turn in part on social and welfare issues. In France these issues were responsible for a devastating and unexpected defeat of the conservative government in parliamentary elections a year ago.

The French Communist newspaper L'Humanite recently commissioned a national poll in France on attitudes toward capitalism. Asked whether they felt enthusiasm about capitalism, hope, indifference, fear or rebellion, 22 percent said enthusiasm or hope, and 53 percent said fear or rebellion. This was a cross-section of the entire population.

The 10 values that the French respondents to this poll associated with capitalism were, in order of importance: technological innovation, egoism, competition, creation of riches, unequal opportunity, progress, social exclusion, freedom of expression, devaluation of work and insecurity.

Changing the system

But people believe that the system can be changed. Ninety percent of those polled in France said they wanted change: 13 percent radical change, 33 percent "change in depth," 44 percent improvements in the system. Only 5 percent were content with the economic system as it is.

A belief in the possibility of change characterizes the German Social Democrats (and Greens), who are considered likely to win power in September. The Socialist-led government in France is committed to reconciling social commitments already made in France with economic reform.

It is, of course, one thing to want change and another thing to succeed with it. The interesting thing is that the two countries that will dominate "Euroland" -- the new European monetary bloc that comes into existence in January -- resist the free-market consensus on the irreconcilability of a successful economy with a welfare state.

That is as significant a fact as the emergence of the European monetary union itself.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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