Monday, August 17, 2009

"I am not a Marxist" Mondays

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital:

His sympathy with peoples rather than governments also leads him naturally into positions of sympathetic understanding for popular struggles, including those waged in the name of anti-imperialism. It is understandable that someone who proclaims the virtues of historical materialism and class analysis, and who takes strongly anti-imperialist positions, should be viewed by many as a Marxist. That he prefers the label of "radical conservative" also makes sense. But then did not Marx also say, "I am not a Marxist"? Perhaps a shot of the sort of "radical conservatism" that [Mongolia specialist Owen] Lattimore espouses is what Marxism needs from time to time to preserve it from its more dogmatic predilections. Certainly, Lattimore's perpetual concern to keep as close to the people he sought to understand has a most healthy ring to it.

It's worth recalling that "conservatism" was at one time a philosophy concerned with the dangers of power as exercised by the prevailing institutions of its day, namely church and state. In other words, you could be conservative to the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality and so on, and against abuses of concentrated power.

Private property, conceived as a right for every person, was seen as a hedge against power; it at least granted people a means of self-sufficiency, rightly regarded as a prerequisite for any meaningful liberty. This is why Thomas Jefferson conceived of an American democracy as practiced by family farmers and community artisans, and objected to concentrated power in the hands of priests, bankers, and bureaucrats.

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