I always used to enjoy reading Owen Jones. I used to think that he was a writer of integrity who passionately advocated for equality, but who was ultimately misguided in how to achieve this – like many people on the left, many of whom I call friends.
His book Chavs highlighted the fact that the working class in Britain are frequently maligned, scapegoated and powerless. It was a refreshing read from a left-wing commentator at a time when much of the Left was – and remains – far too focussed on infighting, identity politics and Israel. As for The Establishment, I disagreed with much of it, but it did raise important questions about accountability, democracy and social justice.
It is, therefore, disappointing to see how, in a desperate attempt to be forgiven and accepted by the Momentum crowd, he has now become their chief propaganda minister. One such example of this is his piece in the Guardian this week in which he says that while we should condemn communism’s cruel history, capitalism also has a miserable track record.
It is, at the very least, positive that he acknowledges some of the horrors caused by communism. He points out that tens of millions of people perished at the hands of Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin in their attempts to usher in their versions of utopia.
However, he then takes a wrong turn. By highlighting what he believes to be the crimes of capitalism, he commits the logical fallacy of tu quoque or you too. In other words, he is attempting to discredit capitalism and anyone who supports it, in the hope that this will ultimately divert attention away from criticism of communism. It is an extremely sloppy argument.
His argument is not only illogical but also just plain wrong. He points to the high death rate in “capitalist” India in 1979 compared with that in “communist” China. The high death rate in India at the time was, indeed, distressing, but there are two problems with him using this in his argument: one, India was not capitalist and two, China really could not be considered communist at this point.
India was indeed a place of poverty and starvation, but its leaders were corrupt and implemented many socialist policies. It was, in fact, only in the ’80s and ’90s when the government began to liberalise its economy that it could be considered truly capitalist.
As for China, after accepting that the communist policies of Mao had brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people, the government began to open up its markets and reformed its economy on more capitalist lines. The results were, as Jones points out, that life expectancy was far higher in China than in India.
He then goes on to blame capitalism for the Atlantic slave trade. Once again, Jones gets it wrong. He neglects to mention that the slave trade started in the 15th century and lasted until the 19th century. Industrial capitalism arrived in the mid-18th century, at a time when slavery had, unfortunately, already existed for hundreds of years.
The slave trade was one of the evilest practices in all of human history. As such, we should be extremely careful before apportioning blame for it. Did people make huge profits out of slavery? Absolutely. Was this the fault of, or a symptom of capitalism? Absolutely not.
Capitalism is based upon the voluntary exchange of goods, services and labour under the rule of law. The rights of all are respected – because to a capitalist everyone is equally important, and nobody can be compelled to work against his will. As such, slavery is the exact antithesis of capitalism.
Communist regimes are not immune to the plague of slavery, with North Korea having the most slaves in the world today. Indeed, we should not be surprised that slavery is so prevalent in a communist country. At the very centre of the teachings of Marx and Engels is the belief that individuals are not important. All that matters is what they can do for the collective. If that means forcing them to work against their will, then so be it.
The same counterargument can be made against his accusation that capitalism caused the deaths of millions of people in India during Victorian times. Such crimes are incompatible with capitalism and were, in fact, the result of imperialism. Again, imperialism has existed throughout history, with Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and the Soviet Union, to name a few examples.
Perhaps most bizarrely, he then blames capitalism for the Second World War. Although he is right to point out that the Great Depression was a factor that allowed the rise of such a despicable figure as Adolf Hitler, it was not the only reason. The fact that he was a genocidal, antisemitic fascist who was determined to take over the world also played a part. But perhaps after the shameful institutional antisemitism engulfing Labour, Jones was not keen to dwell that subject.
The fact is we should not be surprised that he has become such a vocal and ardent apologist for communism. There is a strong historical precedence for this. During the 1920s and 1930s, some of the horrors of life in communist Russian began to be reported in the UK. The response of the Left was similar to that of Jones today.
In his excellent book Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left, Giles Udy provides several examples of this. The Guardian itself has used the word “alleged” when talking about the crimes committed by communists. On one such occasion when there was compelling evidence that the communist regime in Russia was persecuting Priests, which received the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Guardian simply stated: “Pope reminded of Catholic torture and burnings”.
But the attempts by Owen Jones to draw attention to the alleged crimes of capitalism amount to logically fallacious arguments with no regard for history. It is communism – not capitalism – that is an evil and coercive system, despite his best attempts to pretend otherwise.