Somewhat like Tim Cohen, but two decades earlier, while at one of the world's leading universities, I fell under the seductive spell of what was called New Left Marxism: a quasi-academic journal, The New Left Review, was the vehicle for the sophisticated, albeit at times tortuous and incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, articles written by disciples of the new school of Marxism. Theoretical Marxists are anything but intellectually dim and Marxism seems to be a fertile ground for abstract debate in ivory towers.
The 1960s New Left school was severely critical of Soviet and Eastern European communism, although this never exceeded, naturally, followers' diatribes against the evils of capitalism. The criticism also always remained more in the realms of theory than the day-to-day horrors of Stalin's killing fields. Their willingness to criticise the increasingly discredited Soviet model, not as a failure of Marxist theory, but rather of those who implemented it in that part of the world, at least in their own eyes gave them a certain moral superiority.
When I read Prof Jeff Guy's scathing and somewhat patronising attack (Trabant versus Mercedes, Cohen versus Marx, July 18) on Cohen's "letter" to the South African Communist Party, which debunked Marx and communism in plain, understandable English (Time for Communist Party to make a contribution, July 16), I was reminded of those bygone years and the New Left school. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that is Prof Guy's intellectual home. It is a seductive perch from which to ponder the world: one doesn't dirty one's hands by joining a communist party and launching into real-life politics. One is free to slam capitalism in all its forms and at the same time criticise the failures of communist governments, without accepting that it is the theory itself which is fatally flawed and thus will lead to disaster, when force-fed into practice.
After paring away the sophisticated theory, I have always understood that, at the base of the Marxist framework, is the belief that individualism and personal liberty are misguided sins and that the mystical "collective will of the people", expressed divinely through the communist party, is what must prevail at all costs. This fundamentally totalitarian view was at the very core of all the various communist governments which ruled their citizens with great savagery and at huge cost to human life as well as spiritual wellbeing.
Capitalism is far from ideal and full of imperfections. Market fundamentalism is not the answer and a balance has to be struck between regulation and the marketplace. However, in significant contrast to Marxist doctrine, it recognises that human beings are most productive and happy when their individualism is recognised, opportunities provided and their freedom to choose and be protected from tyranny are the order of the day.
The results have been a staggering increase in the standard of living of those who have lived and continue to live in countries where private enterprise is at the centre of economic activity. Yes, unacceptable levels of inequality continue to prevail in many capitalist states and vast areas of poverty exist in many parts of the world. The most recent examples of the unleashing of private initiative and enterprise, China and India, have seen overall mortality rates decline and hundreds of millions become part of the middle class, lifted out of poverty. This was not the case previously.
This does not please Marxists of any description because their blind arrogance does not accept that humans like choice, enjoy materialism and thrive under competition that is not unbridled, but regulated in a balanced way: they call it "false consciousness". They dream forever of human nature being different: lovingly communal, ready to embrace mediocre equality, prepared to renounce worldly goods, content to subordinate themselves to the party and the state, etc. The fact that this vision does not accord with reality makes them even more determined to defend and promote it.