Why Marx was Half Right

“Marx’s work is all about human enjoyment. The good life for him is not one of labour but one of leisure. Free self-realisation is a from of “production”, to be sure; but it is not one that is coercive. And leisure is necessary if men and women are to devote time to running their own affairs. It is thus surprising that Marxism does not attract more card-carrying idlers and professional loafers to its ranks. This, however, is because a lot of energy must be expended on achieving this goal. Leisure is something you have to work for.”

Terry Eagleton

Marx highlighted how grinding poverty robs people of leisure time because they have to work all hours of the day just to survive. Although he pointed to the tragic plight of the busy workers in newly industrialised British cities, this is even more true of traditional agrarian societies. Ironically, it was the industrial revolution and capitalism which began to free people from the servitude of labour and open up new vistas of leisure.

Fast forward to the labour saving devices of the 1950’s. Fast forward to the AI revolution and the further spread of automation throughout the manufacturing and even service industries. A bright future of endless leisure beckons. No more slaving over the washing or in the cotton mills. Plenty of free time for “self-realisation”.

Are we ready for the communist utopia then? Not quite. Even though we don’t really need to work all hours of the day to survive, we still work like dogs. Why? Because we want a bigger house and a better car. We do have plenty of leisure time left over though. But we don’t seem to use much if any of it for self-realisation. We’d rather spend it on entertainment.

This is what “the evil of capitalism” seems to amount to for Marxists. People work all day in pointless jobs and then spend their evenings being brainwashed by idiotic TV shows and advertising. What kind of a life is that? I call it Muggle Life. Aldous Huxley called it Brave New World.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. You still end up being a cog in the capitalist machine. This is the half that Marx was right about. All his talk of “alienation” boils down to this dehumanising, superficial existence of material production and consumption. It sucks.

Marx was reticent about speculating on what the communist utopia would actually be like. We know that the communist dystopia looks something like George Orwell’s 1984, as has been fully realised in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But why wouldn’t the utopian version be something like Brave New World?

As Terry Eagleton says, “leisure is something you have to work for”, which is why Marxists cannot enjoy the fruits of their leisure. They are too busy. Busy doing what? Working for the future leisure utopia of course! And how do they keep themselves busy? Well, they read Marxist tracts. They attend meetings. They go on marches and demos. They talk incessantly about how awful capitalism is.

Marxists are too busy to “self-realise”. They will not rest until the communist leisure utopia has arrived. But what if the capitalist leisure utopia has already arrived? What’s the advantage of a communist one? Well, for a start, people won’t waste their time on stupid capitalist bourgeois nonsense. They won’t be greedy. They won’t be individualistic or materialistic. They will be communists. Which sound lovely if you happen to be a communist. But if you’re not, you’ll probably be hard pressed to think of anything worse.

In any case, Marx was right about leisure. You need leisure time in order to self-realise. But he was wrong about how to go about getting it. Perpetual revolution, perpetual Marxism, perpetual class struggle, don’t exactly free up time. You just end up swapping muggle pastimes for muppet ones. And you will never be content to put down your arms, because human nature being what it is, however history turns out, you will never accept that we have actually reached the longed for utopia.

The only way to truly “self-realise” is to realise that you are responsible for what you do with your time. You can choose how much to work. You can choose how to spend your free time. You don’t really need loads of money, so you don’t really need to work really hard. You don’t really need to buy that new jacket or watch that new series. You don’t have to be a capitalist muggle. Equally, you can choose not to obsess about how other people don’t have the same luxury. You don’t have to be a Marxist muppet.

If you really want a leisure utopia of endless time for self-realisation here and now, not in some fanciful imaginary future, why not be a monk or a nun? That’s what monasteries are for.

Marx was half right in that we need basic material conditions in order to be able to fulfill our human potential for self-realisation. But he was wrong in supposing that material conditions go all the way. At a certain point, a very close point in fact, the spiritual takes over.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t work for the material betterment of humanity. Some people are called to help the poor and to fight on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them call themselves Christians; some of them call themselves Marxists. But the poor are always with us. The way society is organised is not necessarily fundamentally corrupt and does not necessarily need to be completely overturned. In fact, the British model of parliamentary democracy works rather well. Locke, Smith, Mandeville, Hume, Burke, Ferguson and Disraeli were not stupid. In any case, the Marxist critique of capitalism as such is irrelevant to the actual amelioration of living standards for real people in the real world.

There is a world of difference between social democracy and democratic socialism. The former is committed to social justice and relief of the dispossessed. The latter is committed to upending the capitalist system. History has shown more incontrovertibly than any political argument that socialism is a disaster for everyone except the apparatchiks.

The only way to tackle the excesses of capitalism is through a spiritual revolution, not a material one. We are in the middle of a spiritual crisis. Sadly, Marxism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.