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Stewart column ‘inaccurate and irrelevant’

Karl Marx

It was with some degree of amusement that I read Mr Stewart’s rather astonishing attack on Karl Marx (May 6, RG), in an attempt to criticise the BIU celebrating International Workers Day. I say astonishing both for its inaccuracies and the rather bizarre combination of a straw-man argument and an ad hominem argument.

He begins with the inaccurate statement that “the main connection with May 1 is, of course, Karl Marx”.

This day actually has no relationship with Karl Marx. It has no particular significance in the life of Dr Marx whatsoever — it is not an anniversary of his birth, death or any pivotal moment in his life.

Rather, May 1 is — as the RG correctly reported in the May 2 article that Mr Stewart is responding to — the annual commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.

This event was a peaceful workers demonstration calling for an eight-hour day, which was brutally repressed by the police. While the actual date was May 4, May Day was adopted for the commemorations by the Second International (Workingmen’s Association) in 1890.

One imagines that Mr Stewart sought to deliberately conflate International Workers’ Day and unions with Marx, Marxism and communism in general. In this Mr Stewart would appear to be writing straight out of the McCarthy era “red scare” playbook of the 1950s. Indeed, if one looks for a definition of McCarthyism in an online dictionary one finds it defined as:

Noun. (1) The practice of making accusations of disloyalty, especially of pro-communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful or irrelevant evidence; (2) The practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative technique, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.

Seems to fit Mr Stewart’s opinion piece quite well indeed. Mr Stewart has created a straw-man here, attacking Marx in place of the unions.

Having quickly seen the irrelevance of Mr Stewart’s attempt to conflate May Day and Bermuda’s unions with Marx (although I do think our unions could benefit from a little Marxism!), let’s take a quick look at the rest of his diatribe against Dr Marx.

1, Politics

Mr Stewart’s claim that Dr Marx was a tyrant springs not from Dr Marx’s actions, but rather those claiming to be “his most determined disciples”. He cites, in particular, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in this regard, and lists a number of atrocities committed by various states proclaiming to be “communist”.

I’m not sure about you, but it’s a rather intellectually weak argument to call Dr Marx a tyrant on the basis of actions of others. Just as it would be ridiculous to hold Moses responsible for the crimes of Apartheid Israel, Jesus responsible for the Crusades, the inquisition, the KKK or the Lord’s Resistance Army, or Muhammed for the crimes of al-Qaeda or Da’ish — or, for that matter, Adam Smith for the crimes of capitalism — it is ridiculous to hold Marx accountable for the crimes of Stalin or Mao.

Marx wrote primarily a critical analysis of capitalism from an economic and philosophical perspective. Where he did discuss the political form, he expected post-capitalist politics, mainly in his 1871 The Civil War in France, where he described it as being very much a bottom-up democracy based on workers’ councils.

Indeed, the 1917 Russian Revolution initially reflected this in its initial stage — the Russian word “soviet” means, simply, “council”.

It’s true that many of the countries that adopted communism in the 20th century were “economically backward”. Marx expected the advanced capitalist societies to become communist first, not the economically backward ones. It was Lenin, and Trotsky, in explaining why this happened who argued that the economically backward countries represented the weak link in the chain.

Accordingly, they started economically behind other countries — without a doubt, had the first successful communist revolution been in Britain, or had the 1918 German revolution not failed, the history of 20th century socialism would have been quite different.

Mr Stewart refers to the Black Book of Communism (1997) as “authoritative”, and approvingly quotes its figures of those killed by “communism” as “between 80 and 100 million people”. This book and its figures have been widely criticised, with even two of its contributors — Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin — stating a more appropriate figure is 65 to 93 million.

There’s actually a Black Book of Capitalism (1998), which tallies those killed by capitalism in the 20th century as also approximately 100 million. Should one add in those killed by capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries (think the Atlantic slave trade, the American and Australian genocides and colonial wars), and the 21st century capitalist wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, etc), one wonders if every day shouldn’t be a “Victims of Capitalism Day”.

2, Racism of Marx

It’s fair to say that Dr Marx, along with pretty much everyone in the 19th century, had views that today we recognise as racist.

Whether he was more or less racist than his contemporaries hardly matters. However, it seems rather lazy of Mr Stewart to try to discredit all that Marx represented by pointing this out. Marx was wrong on some things and right on many other things. One does not dismiss everything a person says simply because they were wrong on this or that thing.

Mr Stewart does make some particularly odd claims, however.

Marx provides some detailed analysis of slavery (both ancient and capitalist), but nowhere does he “champion slavery in the United States”, or anywhere else for that matter. Indeed, one need only look at his 1865 letter to Abraham Lincoln and his various post-Civil War articles to see the falseness of this accusation.

3, Personal Life

Dr Marx was certainly no saint. Does this matter? Not one iota.

To try to discredit someone’s arguments and works on the basis of their personal failings is a particularly lazy, weak and disingenuous argument.

It is in this section that Mr Stewart engages most obviously in an ad hominem attack: shoot the messenger and not the message.


Mr Stewart has sought to combine a straw-man and a bizarre ad hominem attack in his article.

May Day has little to do with Marx, and our unions are far from Marxist.

If Mr Stewart would like to have a public debate about trade unionism or Marx or Marxism, let’s have it. But let’s have a proper one and not this weak and disingenuous attempt.