When I started university, I picked up Karl Marx and read everything. You name it, I read it – except Capital II, I never got around to that one. I soon styled myself as a solidly left-wing kind of person. I hated the current government, I did not respect my boss at all, I voted for standard left-wing politicians. I demonstrated in the streets, the US was evil, and Lenin was just misunderstood. I didn’t go so far as to sign up for the communist party and I would not consider myself a radical, but I certainly had some sympathies.
What attracted me to this day to thinkers like Karl Marx was the answer he provides to the question of why injustice exists in the world. In an increasingly agnostic world, we can’t just use God to explain the way things are – which is a rather horrible place. Everywhere one looks there just seems to be endless suffering and injustice. Marx gives you the answer to this question – capitalism.
So, I progressed through university, reading everything I could get my hands on including a lot of books from all across the political spectrum, but I remained fairly left-wing. I saw injustices in the world and thought this was inherent to a corrupt system of exploitation and I dreamt of a world where things were just easier for myself and everyone around me.
It broke my heart once to see a group of men sleeping in the street, not because they had no job, but because they had to start work at 4.30 in the morning and this was the only way the could be on time because they had no car and public transport doesn’t run at that time. This to me was unjust, and an example of exploitative system. Now I see this as just a bunch of guys trying their best to do what they think is right.
Something that really stuck in my mind though was that things on the left just never seemed to add up. If a socialist system was superior, why were we not at least edging towards it? Surely, even the average person would be able to understand that socialism is far more attractive than exploitative capitalism? Most important of all was the question – why is the other side winning?
To answer these questions, I committed myself to read a lot more of thinkers on the right, but without my left-wing lens. In other words, I wasn’t going to read these texts any less critically, but I was going to approach them differently from what I had previously. Before they were the thinkers that justified capitalist enslavement of mankind through a corrupt political system, now I wanted to assess them for what they had originally intended their texts to be.
My first port of call was Rousseau and his Du Contrat Sociale – and boy was it an eye opener.
Rousseau’s famous line:“man is born free, yet everywhere I see him in chains”resonates with me to this day. Rousseau’s answer for the existence of justice said to me that more fundamentally that exploitation, we are held back by convention.
Then I moved onto the other heavyweights: Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Burke. The collective achievement of these writers showed me the enormous progress western philosophy has taken to lift off the shackles of superstition, deference, and servitude.
I threw in other important writers, especially those who I would describe as confused socialists, Orwell and Camus. It was important for me to understand their relationship with socialism and why they turned their backs on international communism. For me, the story of Camus particularly is the most poignant
when your ideology justifies violence against others it is broken.
I recognise now that left-wing ideology fundamentally does not work. That is not to say right-wing ideology is any better. So, I sit now in the centre. That all changed when I read Schmidt, and now I don’t sit anywhere, I’ve just left the party altogether. Basically, I’m floundering on the floor in crushing cynicism.
So, what are the lessons I have learned so far?
- Marx was wrong: capitalism is not coming to roaring conclusion. It’s just not going to happen.
- Always be sceptical: no one has the right answer, they have only an answer.
- I am free: my life and destiny are entirely my responsibility.
- Power should remain within the individual: Governments cannot be trusted – delegating power will invariably lead to worse outcomes for people.
- Suffering is a part of the human condition: it is what we do with it that counts.
And what I recommend for people? Two words: Marcus Aurelius.