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Review: China Miéville’s “A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto”

(Macmillan)

“Sentimental and sycophantic in turns, it may be hard to dispel the impression that Miéville is merely a hysteric. All the same, A Spectre, Haunting is a post-Nietzschean book, which leans into the charge of ressentiment. Spurning subterfuge, Miéville quite openly asserts that justice and revenge amount, more or less, to the same thing.”

It sounds unlikely, perhaps. But on every single wall and ceiling in Jordan Peterson’s home, the bathroom not excepted, hang paintings of Lenin and other early Bolshevik leaders. Peterson is a collector of Socialist Realism. His house, we learn in the introduction to 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos—the book that brought the controversial Canadian clinical psychologist, academician, and enemy of wokism notoriety and fame—is a reliquary of Soviet propaganda.

Why? Simple: Peterson wants to be reminded of something he knows that he and nearly everyone would prefer to forget, namely, the fact that almost a hundred million people were murdered less than a hundred years ago in the name of utopia, in the name of equality, red plenty, and a conflict-free world.

Peterson is a strange man. Strange, but brilliant. He likes a visual daily-reminder about the human capacity for evil in the nominal interest of altruism, progress, and—as it is often grandly termed—”humanity.” It is an idiosyncratic way to go about remembering the crimes of communism, certainly. It is probably unnecessary, too. Karl Popper, for instance, also insisted on the vital connection between utopianism and violence, yet Popper, presumably, did not turn his house into a Museum of Communist Terror.

It does pay, however, to be vigilant. Yet, in a post-Soviet world, our vigilance about the threat posed by utopian thought seems to be waning.

Few would dispute the claim that the world would be an immeasurably better place if Hitler had never been born. How many, though, would assent to the same claim if we substitute Marx for Hitler? A small number, I imagine. What about Marx’s humanism? His critique of capitalism red in tooth and claw? His theory of alienation? It is a number, I suspect, getting smaller all the time.
Marx, of course, has never been without critics—including critics indigenous to the Left. Even before the catastrophe of Actually Existing Socialism (or knowledge of its full import), H. G. Wells, for instance, described the influence of Marx as “an unqualified drag on the progressive reorganisation of human society.” Bertrand Russell, too, regarded Marx a poor economist and a faulty prognostician. Nonetheless, the simplicity of the theory Marx advanced has never ceased to appeal to a minority of intellectuals.

For the duration of my childhood and early-adult years, Marxism was passé. To be a teenage Trotskyist, as I was, was gauche—unspeakably so. The “comrades” and I were ridiculed even selling newspapers at Goldsmiths, Britain’s flagship Left-wing university. It is not, however, gauche any more. On the contrary, Marx, since 2008, has gone mainstream, and Marxists are lauded by large sections of the establishment as figures of insight and respectability.

In his  essay on utopia and violence, Popper distinguished between two forms of rationalism. One is reasonable. It attempts to reach decisions by argument. It listens. It compromises. And it changes its mind. It offers an alternative to violence. The other is goal-oriented. It is instrumental. Reason is subordinate to a specific end. It is arrogant and dogmatic and leads to violence. It does not spurn argument, but its use of argument is indistinguishable from propaganda.

China Miéville’s new book, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, is a case study in the second kind of reasoning Popper identified: the self-defeating reason of utopian rationalism. It is a work of propaganda—propaganda and outright demagoguery. As history, it is farcical. As political theory, it is menacing. And yet, in this Brave New Ideological World, an institution as venerable as the British Library is ready to give it the imprimatur of decency, hosting the author to discuss the text with the political theorist Lea Ypi.

In this review, I will begin with the history. Next, I will tackle the political theory. And, finally, I will offer some thoughts on why Marxism, as an ideology distinct from socialism more generally, is so incredibly pernicious.

First, then, the history.

Unlike previous authors of introductions to the Communist Manifesto—A. J. P. Taylor, Eric Hobsbawm, Gareth Stedman Jones—Miéville is not a historian, and it tells. A Spectre, Haunting is chock-full of unsubstantiated claims, like the contention that the impact of the Manifesto was “epochal.” In fact, the text was barely read and when it was read it was typically seen as far less important than Marx and Engels’ other work, texts such as Capital, Anti-Dühring, and The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

Miéville actually knows this, but he is nothing if not inconsistent, arguing at once that the Manifesto is both a performative text, which ought not to be taken literally, and that “Marx and Engels are convinced by their own claims” and are “thunderously uncynical.” What Miéville does not know—because he has not engaged with the scholarship—is that to say Marx and Engels collaborated harmoniously up until Marx’s death in 1883 is nonsense.

Marx didn’t finish Capital, his magnum opus, the book he worked on for the great bulk of his adult life, for a reason. It was unfinishable, he discovered. Communism was not the inevitable outcome of history. Capitalism, he belatedly realized, was durable and dynamic and creative. It was communism, a society without a market, which would become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, not its antagonist.

In the final years of his life, Marx thus embraced an anti-capitalist position. Rejecting the idea of historical stages which society had to pass through—slavery, feudalism, capitalism—he turned instead to the Russian commune as the starting-point for a communist society (for these arguments, see Stedman Jones’ biography, indisputably the go-to work now on Marx). Engels, by contrast, remained a true believer, continuing to cleave to the teleological post-capitalist vision that he and Marx outlined together in the Communist Manifesto—a vision Miéville wants to pretend Engels did not hold. Indulging in a spot of Stalinist airbrushing, the idea that Engels was an economic determinist, we are told, is “bogus.” A cursory glance at the literature would show otherwise.

True to the communist tradition of memory-holing uncomfortable facts, there are numerous missing persons in A Spectre, Haunting. On so-called reactionary socialism, Benjamin Disraeli and Thomas Carlyle; on the Condition-of-England Question, the Christian socialists Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley; on the revolutions of 1848, the nationalist leaders Lajos Kossuth, Giuseppe Mazzini, and František Palacký; and in Miéville’s analytic section on nationalism, the Austro-Marxists.

On the Manifesto’s failure to anticipate capitalism’s resilience, Miéville neglects to mention that Eduard Bernstein had noted this lacunae in his critique of revolutionary Marxism, The Preconditions of Socialism in 1899, some time before Leon Trotsky (a good Marxist, as opposed to a bad one; or worse, a revisionist, a renegade) got round to making the same point. And on Marx and Engels’ reticence to proclaim support for women’s suffrage, Miéville conveniently forgets to mention John Stuart Mill, another early socialist and advocate of female enfranchisement. Needless to say, Mill’s critique of state socialism—Chapters on Socialism (1869)—is nowhere to be seen here, either.

Bad faith, in short, prevails. Bad faith, and incompetence. I will not bore the reader with more Marxology or evidence of historiographical shortcomings. Suffice to say, A Spectre, Haunting teems with clichés, exclusions, and misunderstandings.

If that was all, one might merely smile and wonder, perhaps, about the scholarly judgement of the Events Team at the British Library. But that’s not all. A Spectre, Haunting is not only shoddy history and fifth-rate exegesis, it is also morally deficient and therefore, combined with its fervor, dangerous. One ought to wonder, in other words, about the political judgement of our overclass too.

In an era peculiarly alert to hate speech, Miéville is not only let off the hook for espousing it but actively encouraged to do so.

The problem with the Manifesto, Miéville proclaims unashamedly, is not that it is hateful. Rather, it is that “it does not hate enough.” Referring to an abstraction called capitalism, which we are told is “sadistic,” “unbearable,” and “inextricable from toxic social problems,” Miéville argues that “we”—always that ominous, dissent-crushing “we”—“must hate more and better than even The Communist Manifesto knew how.” We must do so, furthermore, for the sake of, wait for it… “humanity”, for the “sake of love.”

Sentimental and sycophantic in turns, it may be hard to dispel the impression that Miéville is merely a hysteric. All the same, A Spectre, Haunting is a post-Nietzschean book, which leans into the charge of ressentiment. Spurning subterfuge, Miéville quite openly asserts that justice and revenge amount, more or less, to the same thing. Inspired by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, Miéville advises that “we must take our enemies seriously.”

The language of “enemies” is omnipresent. “Us” and “them,” or “who, whom?,” reasoning infects the entire book. For Miéville, it is impossible that the relationship between capital and labor could ever be anything other than conflictual. The notion of the common good is foreign to him.
This, though, is two-bit Leninism. Machiavelli, Robespierre, and Nechayev have little to fear. Although Miéville casually accepts the “necessity of violence” and insists on “the elimination of the bourgeoisie as a class,” it is unlikely that he’ll convince others to follow him. If in the 1980s G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and John Roemer gave us “non-bullshit Marxism”—analytical Marxism, Marxism at its best—with phrases like “a vibrating aboutness cluster” and “apocatopia,” Miéville serves up bullshit-in-spades Marxism, Marxism at its most unanalytical, Marxism as an unbeautiful mess.

In the noughties, Cohen ceased to be a Marxist. When it could no longer stand up to scrutiny he traded that ideology in for ethical socialism. Cohen was a reasonable man. So, too, is Elster, who now  thinks that “both the world and our understanding of it would have benefitted” had Marx never been born.

Elster, moreover, furnishes better reasons for thinking that than Wells, who objected, above all, to Marx’s resistance to drawing up blueprints for futurity (Marx, in other words, was not utopian enough). While Wells criticized Marx for his “uninventiveness” and lack of intellectual ambition, Elster protests Marx’s hubris, intellectual and moral. Far from being blameless for the emergence and nature of the murderous regimes which acted in his name in the twentieth-century, as Miéville would have us believe, Marx bears causal responsibility; Marxism, Elster rightly argues, tends strongly towards tyranny.

So, what is it, exactly, that makes Marx monstrous? Or at least how, precisely, did Marx and Engels enable the rise and consolidation of totalitarian states?

First, there are the unintended consequences which inhere in their theory, consequences Miéville is singularly (and willfully) blind to. Here, we can isolate four interconnected categories: morality, rights, human nature, and the so-called “scientific” character of their work. (For ease of explanation, I offer here a rational reconstruction of Marx’s ideas, ignoring the romantic Marx of the 1870s and eighties, who gave up on Capital.)

Morality

As economic determinists, for Marx and Engels, morality is epiphenomenal. It belongs to the social superstructure which mirrors and serves the economic base. Although they deploy a great deal of moralizing rhetoric, there is no place, consequently, for trans-historical morality in Marx and Engels’ worldview. Conflict is a product of scarcity. Individualism emanates from the division of property. In a community of goods, based on an economy of superabundance, people can be expected to behave reliably well toward each other without having to think excessively hard about doing so. Social being determines consciousness, and with the relations of production in alignment with the forces of production it is in the interest of the individual to behave cooperatively. To beseech individuals to behave in an actively virtuous way is therefore pointless, and, before time, futile. Morality is always relative to a particular stage of history. The good society, communism, will not be delivered until it is fully developed in the womb of the parent society: Capitalism. Prefiguration, as Miéville argues, is useless. Who needs “experiments in living” to ascertain what is and what is not possible when one merely needs to be patient with history to do its work?

What is clear now, however—just as it was clear to Mill, who suggested such trials, a hundred fifty years ago—is that, first, a good society presupposes people of good character in the first instance; and, second, people of good character are not a product of social structures but rather systems of ethics which they think about assiduously and absorb. The unintended consequence of eschewing morality in the name of history is to establish a society susceptible to vice. This is hardly unique historically. But what makes Marx and Engels’ communism doubly compromised here is the absence of space they make within it for individual rights.

Rights

Distinguishing between political emancipation and human emancipation—the one representing the rights of the individual, the other “man’s real species being”—for Marx and Engels, rights under communism would be archaic. Rights are simply the “insurance of egoism,” enabling individuals to think only of themselves and nothing of the community. As a post-scarcity society, and thus a post-conflict society, communism is a post-rights society, too. Yet, without rights, the individual is subject to the whims of the strong and the powerful. The unintended consequence of Marx and Engels’ romantic teleological relativism is to make the individual vulnerable to the power-hungry, the despotic, or just simply the group.

Human Nature

According to Marx and Engels, human nature is plastic. As the mode of production changes over time, undergoing a series of ruptures, so, too, does the human subject. What they anticipate under communism is the emergence of a “New Man,” a human subject free from the desire to dominate and oppress. This, needless to say, is Marx and Engels at their most dangerously utopian. Nonetheless, Miéville, ignoring the experience of communism in practice, echoes their belief in the radical transformation of the human subject: in the future, every person an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx—minus, presumably, the personal authoritarianism of the latter.

For Miéville, as for Marx and Engels, non-economic exploitation does not exist. The will-to-power and the will-to-pleasure do not concern them. The “New Man,” or “Person,” we are assured, will be unable to even imagine a selfhood “predicated on the exploitation of others.” “Ours is a humanity defined by unfreedom,” Miéville tells us; “central to theirs will be freedom.” Although Miéville does not define it, this, of course, is “freedom to”, not “freedom from.” This is “positive” liberty, liberty as self-realization. The obvious peril here is that when the higher self of the utopian imagination does not emerge, when true freedom—as opposed to its mangy impostor, the absence of coercion—is not realized organically, we have to be forced to be free instead.

In its deluded grandiosity and inveterate wishful thinking, Marxism is congenitally prone to totalitarianism. The unintended consequence of such utopian thinking is to enslave instead of emancipate.

Science

Marxism is, without doubt, the most utopian utopian project of them all. Marx and Engels, however, would have us think otherwise. According to them—especially Engels, who significantly glossed Marx’s work in this regard—Marxism is scientific. If Darwin discovered the laws of the development of nature, Marx unearthed the laws of the development of human history.
Now laws, clearly, are not meant to be broken but obeyed. Presenting their theory as descriptive rather than normative, Marx and Engels thus give idealists and cynics alike carte blanch to persecute with impunity, satisfied that they are complying with history’s laws, undertaking the necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, work for the species to ascend history’s ladder. Terror in the service of progress is naturally guiltless. The guilty are those who refuse to yield to history’s demands. The unintended consequence of Marx and Engels’ intellectual bombast is to provide justification for the maltreatment of ostensibly superannuated social groups and nonconforming individuals.

Then, second, there are the more malicious aspects of Marx, namely his uncompromising defenSe of class struggle, his belief in violent revolution as an efficacious mechanism of change, and his advocacy of the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat.” As with the above, Miéville embraces all three. A less talented sophist than Marx, though, in Miéville’s hands these concepts are plainly threatening, as his advocacy of “class hate” (hatred of the system) and “empathy” for “individualised hate” (hatred of individual “oppressors”) attest. The gulag is more than just dimly visible here. The border between the “system” and the individuals who comprise it is clearly porous.

An almost paradigmatic utopian rationalist, all the usual inconsistencies and double standards operate in A Spectre, Haunting. Of special interest, perhaps, is Miéville’s advocacy of “ruin communism.” In arguing that, in the era of climate crisis, communism must be somewhat less luxurious than first envisaged, he inadvertently breaks with Marxism as it was expounded in the “restless, urgent, vital” document he analyses in the book. In the absence of superabundance it is unclear what will keep conflict at bay. Predictably, Miéville, who otherwise never lets an opportunity to virtue signal pass him by, is also silent on Marx’s anti-Semitism and forgiving of Marx’s racist remarks, which he quotes selectively. Ideology has Miéville in its grip.

For Miéville, communism is the solution to almost every conceivable problem under the sun. The same was true for Marx and Engels. Whatever the issue communism will resolve it. Popper, by contrast, counseled that instead of seeking the “realization of abstract goods,” we ought to work rather for “elimination of concrete evils.” It is sound advice. However, in hoping only to make “life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in each generation,” Popper was perhaps too restrained. It is necessary to remember that there are other socialists besides Marx in the socialist tradition. If Miéville erases them from history it does not mean they do not exist.

As we have seen, Marx’s humanism was scarcely benign. His critique of capitalism was powerful but exaggerated, and other thinkers advanced similarly compelling assessments of the spawn of the “dismal science” simultaneously (Carlyle, for example, from whom Marx and Engels borrow in the Manifesto). Likewise, there are other theorists of alienated labor, most notably, the conservative socialist and contemporary of Marx and Engels, John Ruskin.

Leaving the question of the desirability of Marx’s birth to one side, what we can say with confidence is that both the world and our understanding of it would be better had Mill’s work on socialism, or indeed Ruskin’s, acquired the same reputation and readership as Marx and Engels’ writings. Mill and Ruskin did not spurn morality or markets, or overestimate human ability, or underestimate the need for good government; they were also attentive to beauty and the natural environment and consistently hostile to growth for growth’s sake.

The same, too, could be said of Russell. Russell likewise advanced a thoughtful, realist iteration of socialism, full of uncommon sense. Warning of the inescapable growth of officialdom under state socialism, Russell explained that it was not the current batch of socialists, many of whom were benign and well-intentioned idealists, who ought to be feared. Rather, it was the ambitious “executive types” who will inevitably assume the reins of power in the future. For in a society where the state has a full monopoly on employment there will be nowhere else for ambition to go.
It will not, in other words, be the well-meaning academics and neurotic idealists—less well-meaning, but ultimately silly rather than sinister—who lead us into the Promised Land. It will be some young Napoleon or Stalin. And the Promise, it will transpire, was a lie. “Love” (a concept which ought to be kept out of public life, anyway) will be extinguished. What will remain will be jealousy, malice, and rivalry—the hate that first brought Heaven on Earth into being.

Let me be clear: for the most part, Marxism is malevolent nonsense. False from beginning to end, it is the ideology of the dim and unpleasant. (Concessions for class origin naturally apply.) We can, however, still learn from Marx. And we ought to as well.

Marxists, clearly, ought not to be expelled from public life. All the same, they should not be invited into the bosom of the establishment, either. Liberalism if it wishes to maintain itself must be prudent. It must marshal its tolerance responsibly. In a sane society, hate-filled Marxists would be condemned to the margins, or the margins of the margins even, not credentialized and offered prestigious platforms.

In short, we need to return to a situation where Marxists are ridiculed on university campuses—like I was as a young man—before the most intelligent among them grow up and become social democrats and conservatives. We need, that is, to return to Tradition. Adapting a famous formulation, we might plausibly say: any person who is not a Marxist aged twenty has no heart. Any person who is still a Marxist aged forty has no head.

Obviously, Miéville met with the guillotine some time ago. Let us not permit him, and others like him, to introduce others to the same contraption. Western societies are headless enough as it is.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He contributes book reviews to a variety of other publications, including Quillette, The Critic, and The New Criterion. 

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