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Where Marx might have been right

05 October 2012

Ed Miliband could learn from his analysis of the workings of capitalism, argues Paul Vallely


Everyman? Ed Miliband speaking at the Labour Conference in Manchester on Sunday

Everyman? Ed Miliband speaking at the Labour Conference in Manchester on Sunday

THE death of one of the most eminent historians in Britain, Eric Hobsbawm, provided an ironic counterpoint to the attempt by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, to re-brand himself at his party's conference in Manchester this week.

Professor Hobsbawm was a historian in the Marxian tradition, much as Mr Miliband's father, Ralph, was in the field of political philosophy - although that was not a fact overly emphasised in the Labour leader's recollections about his own childhood. These consisted chiefly of recalling his comprehensive-school education, and his birth in the NHS hospital in which his two sons were also subsequently born. This was Ed as Everyman rather than the policy-wonk son of a Marxist intellectual.

In the glowing encomiums to Professor Hobsbawm, much was made of his refusal to disown his Communist identity, even after Stalin cruelly put paid to the idealism with which many Western intellectuals had surrounded the Bolshevik Revolution. Ever the historian, he demanded to be understood in his own context - as someone whose political identity was forged in the Nazi era, when the Communists seemed to be on the right side of history.

Mr Miliband, in contrast, has in the past happily played the apologist for Labour's record in the Blair/ Brown era. His task this week - despite that party-political broadcast continuously re-emphasising his comprehensive-school background - was to paint himself as common man rather than class warrior.

So it was intriguing to see the economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders, in her BBC2 series Masters of Money, report a comeback in academic and City circles for the analysis that Karl Marx brought to bear on the workings of capitalism. The depth of the present global slump adds credibility to his view that crisis is inherent in the capitalist system.

For decades, Marx's insistence that capitalism seeks non-stop to drive wages down seemed out of date, as the living standards of ordinary people rose steadily. But globalisation is changing that for ordinary people in the West. Top people's earnings have soared, while average incomes have been flat or falling for ten years, long before the current crisis. In the United States, the top one per cent of people took 12 per cent of the national income a decade ago; today, they cream off 23 per cent. Inequality has risen in the UK, too.

All this was disguised by a credit boom based on what seemed to be ever-rising house prices - until bankers' greed imploded the system from within. Marx's Communist manifesto, Ms Flanders says, feels even more relevant today than when it was written.

So, if Marx did not have the right answers, he certainly asked the right questions. Students of Professor Hobsbawm's writings will know that, for all his lack of apology for his past, he did acknowledge the failures of the Left's solutions. But he insisted that socialism and the gulag were not synonymous, and he never lost faith that a more just social order might one day be achieved. There was a touch of that in Mr Miliband's pledge to transform the lives of the "forgotten 50 per cent" of young people in England who do not go to university.

Capitalism is like the weather: it is just there, and there is no alternative, the right-winger Peter Hitchens told Ms Flanders. Professor Hobsbawm remained more optimistic. Not long before his death, he was having lunch with the historian-MP Tristram Hunt in the House of Commons. When Mr Miliband joined them for coffee, the old Marxist immediately complained that the Labour leader was not being nearly radical enough. As the economic downturn continues to bite on those at the bottom, that judgement may become politically more attractive rather than less.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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