Marxism and Conspiracy Theories

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One of the ideas raised at a recent meeting of the Occupy movement in London has been that the ruling class somehow engineered the current economic crisis in order to preserve its own power. This conception is nothing new; conspiracy theories have been around for as long class society and government and vary widely in scope and plausibility. Even the Ancient World had its share with Nero being accused by contemporary historians of starting the Great Fire of Rome.

In more modern times, ever since the rise to dominance of the Rothschild dynasty in international banking and their role in funding the English in the Napoleonic Wars, the idea of banking elites manipulating economic crisis and war for its own ends has been able to find an audience.

Today, as the masses try to make sense of the economic catastrophe that is shaking the foundation of society to its core, and with mainstream bourgeois politics utterly discredited, many are turning to conspiracy theories in order to try and understand the world situation.

Such conceptions are no longer the province of “crazy” extremists. For example, some opinion polls have demonstrated belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories as being widely held by the general public in the US. A poll in 2004 found that 49% of NYC residents believed parts of the US government had advance warning of the attacks and allowed them to happen.

We in the ICC have also been accused of being “conspiracy theorists” because of our thesis on the “Machiavellianism” of the ruling class. In fact, we think there are fundamental differences between a Marxist analysis of the political life of the ruling class and the ideological underpinnings behind many conspiracy theories. This is what we hope to explore in this article.

Conspiracies real ...

Another early conspiracy theory surrounds the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with Lord Salisbury alleged to have either masterminded the plot or have allowed it to continue after discovery in order to justify a crackdown on Catholics in England. This theme of false-flag operations is common in conspiracy theory - that is, a covert operation designed to appear as if it was being carried out by an enemy group or power in order to justify action against it.

Most “false-flag” theories fall at you what might call the plausible or possible end of the conspiracy theory spectrum. Their plausibility is derived from the fact that many real false-flag operations have been planned and carried out throughout history. For example:

·         Commonly known as the Gleiwitz Incident, Germany justified its invasion of Poland in 1939 due to an attack by a group of Polish soldiers on a German radio-station. In fact, the operation was carried out by SS commandos dressed in Polish uniforms;

·         Operation Susannah was an attempt by the Israeli security forces to plant bombs in various hotels in Egypt which would then be blamed on Islamic extremists, communists, etc. Also known as the Lavon Affair, as the Israeli Minister of Defence, Pinhas Lavon, was forced to resign over the issue;

·         Operation Northwoods was a proposed operation submitted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Kennedy administration, suggesting government operatives carry out acts of terrorism in the US and frame Cuba in order to justify military aggression. Although Northwoods was never carried out, it shows beyond question that these kinds of operations are seriously discussed in the upper echelons of the state.

Other examples of proven historical conspiracies include:

·         The Ebert-Groener Pact, was a secret agreement Freidrich Ebert (leader of the SDP) and Wilhelm Groener (commander of the Reichwehr) in 1918 during the German Revolution. This was an alliance for counter-revolution between left and right, with the left providing the political cover (the ruling SDP saying it carried out its action in the name of the workers) while the right provided the muscle, the brutal Freikorps who later evolved into the Nazi SA and SS.

·         The Propaganda Due (P2) Lodge – “a state within a state”[1] – had tentacles spread throughout the Italian ruling class. It has been linked to both the Mafia and the Vatican and included Italian politicians, business men and state functionaries (including the police and security services). P2 came to light in 1981 during investigations into the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano. It also alleged to have been closely linked with the mysterious “Operation Gladio”;

·         Operation Gladio itself was initially established by NATO as a “stay-behind” operation in the event that the Soviet Union invaded Europe or a “communist”[2] government seized control of a European state. Strongly linked to the right-wing of the bourgeoisie and organised crime, these structures would attempt to disrupt political and social life under the new regime, through subversion and terror. Various trials and investigations have seen allegations of Gladio and P2 involvement in terrorist events in post-war Italy. Although Gladio was primarily focused on Italy, similar operations were in place throughout continental Europe and Gladio has become a short-hand term covering them.

It is, therefore, a matter of historical record that such conspiracies do exist. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that every event is the product of conspiracies, but nor does it mean that we can naively dismiss any discussion of bourgeois machinations as “just” conspiracy theories.

... and imagined

It goes without saying that while some conspiracies have been proven to exist and others, while not categorically proven are at least plausible, there are many conspiracy theories which are utterly without foundation.

These conspiracy theories usually have very similar characteristics:

·         The world is secretly controlled by a covert group that ranges from Jews, Freemasons, bankers (who coincidentally often happen to be Jewish) and even aliens;

·         All significant world events are actually the product of the machinations of this clique.

Ironically, the propagation of such conspiracy theories often has its origin (or is at least facilitated) by state organs. The infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, supposedly the minutes of a meeting attended by world Jewish leaders as part of a plot to take over the world, was actually a forgery created by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana.

The Jewish people have, of course, long been the target for accusations of conspiracy. Even the word ‘cabal’, often used to describe a group of plotters, derives from ‘Caballa’, a form of Jewish mysticism. Many modern conspiracy theories, even when they are not the overtly anti-Semitic rantings of the far-right, are still ideological descendents of the kind of hatred embodied in the Protocols. More modern theorists may talk sincerely about “international bankers” and a “global elite” rather than “international Jewry”, but the essential ideological structure is the same. After all, much of the resentment towards Jews was derived from the perception of their dominance of the banking system and the fact that they represented a visible minority with supposed loyalties to something other than the crown or the national state. These sorts of conspiracy theories are thus tightly interweaved with nationalist sentiments. As a side note, the influence of this is even seen on leftist ideology which officially repudiates nationalism and racism - the ideology of anti-globalisation is explicitly bound up with the idea of global capitalists who undermine the national state and exploit its peoples. The underlying similarities with the paranoid ideology of the Nazi regime are obvious.

Communists have also been a popular target for conspiracy theories. In the US, the Protocols were republished in 1919 by the Public Ledger in Philadelphia with all references to Jews replaced with “Bolsheviks” and calling it the “Red Bible”. Drawing on Marx’s Jewish background, anti-Semites have always equated communists and Jews and it was inevitable that the Russian Revolution would be identified with the Jewish conspiracy. The vast literature written on this subject is worthy of an academic treatise in itself but it is safe to say that the well-known total identification between “Jews” and “Bolsheviks” by the Nazi regime is the logical consequence of this line of thought.

While most can see the paranoid fantasies of the far-right for what they are, it is worth pointing out that mainstream bourgeois history has largely interpreted the Russian Revolution along conspiratorial lines. Instead of being the conscious act of the masses themselves, historiography often reduces the Revolution to a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Once again, we see that conspiracy theory, for all its avowed rejection of mainstream thought, is not a million miles away from the fundamental axes of bourgeois ideology even if it exaggerates certain aspects to the point of absurdity.

The Role of Conspiracy Theory

Officially, the bourgeoisie disavows conspiracy theory. In fact, the very term is a pejorative intended to imply that the very idea of conspiracies in the democratic state is so ridiculous that no right-thinking person could possibly believe them. Despite this, as we have briefly examined, the bourgeoisie indulges in conspiratorial activity all the time. Moreover, its own view of history is conspiratorial, a chronicle of ceaseless rivalry between cliques seeking control of the state, of manipulation of the masses, etc.

Conspiracy theories orientated around libels towards particular groups are an expression of the racism and prejudice that’s endemic to capitalist society; in that sense they have a spontaneous character. But they are also employed consciously by the state in order to justify action against certain groups. The venomous lies propagated around the Jews have been used to justify brutal pogroms throughout history.

Similarly, conspiracy theories around communists were used in efforts to mobilise counter-revolution in the period after Red October, both in Russia and beyond. The “Red Scares” in the US, for example, were propagated in order to support the policy aims of the US state. In the first period, the aim was to decapitate the political organs of the working class. The ideological offensive wasn’t limited to communists: anarchists, union members (especially the IWW), strikers of any sort were all routinely denounced as dangers to respectable society. This was part of the international counter-revolution unleashed to crush the revolutionary wave.

In the second Red Scare, the infamous period of “McCarthyism”, the policy aims certainly had a social dimension but were primarily orientated around the imperialist rivalry between the US and its Russian rival. The US ruling class was concerned about the appeal that Stalinist ideology had for the working class and had already uncovered several active Russian spy-rings.

What of conspiracy theories that denounce the state (the 9/11 Truth Movement is an example)? In some respects, they represent the extreme distrust that the petit-bourgeoisie has for the state and big capital. It is no accident that the home of modern conspiracy theory is among the right-wing libertarians in the United States. On the face of things, these conspiracy theories appear to challenge the mythology of the democratic state. But, in fact, they play a role in preserving that very mythology because - in an expression of the historic impotence of the petit-bourgeoisie - they are unable to provide a real alternative to bourgeois democracy. Instead, they are reduced to the entirely utopian demand of calling on the state to be what it pretends to be, the democratic expression of “the people”. For example, John Buchanan stood for the US Presidency in the 2004 election on a “Truther” platform. The more radical elements that see this approach as the futile exercise it is are condemned to holing up in mountain retreats with stockpiles of automatic weapons, waiting for the final apocalypse to descend.

The more paranoid varieties also serve another role. In the first instance, they allow any serious discussion of the inner workings of the bourgeois class to be dismissed from mainstream consciousness through guilt by association: partly because of the ludicrous nature of some of their claims, but also their unsavoury associations with the extreme right and religious fundamentalism.

Although, as we have seen, their underlying themes are not new in themselves, their modern forms are certainly influenced by one of the classical expressions of decomposing capitalism: the tendency for bourgeois ideology to become more and more openly irrational. In part, they are also a response to the growing chaos of capitalist in its everyday, material reality, and it’s no accident that there are close links to the rise of New Age and religious fundamentalism. David Icke, the classic representation of the New Age version, talks of alien lizards that secretly rule the world while Millennialist Christians believe they are living in the time supposedly foretold in the book of Revelations and that the coming of the Antichrist will be accompanied by a totalitarian “New World Order”. Nearly 20% of US Christians (roughly 16% of the country’s population) believe that Jesus will return within their lifetimes[3]. Sales of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, one of the earliest popular paperbacks on the “End Times” had sold over 28 million copies by 1990, in spite of being more or less falsified by failed predictions. The Left Behind series, a fictionalised account of the Apocalypse, has sold millions of copies (in 1998 the first four books held the four top slots of the New York Times best-sellers list).

Many more examples could be given, underlining the fact that such theories have a growing influence on mainstream culture and politics. The impact of “End Time” ideology on the right-wing of the US ruling class is undeniable and we might also point out the successful television series “The X Files” which took up and widely popularised the UFO variety of conspiracism.

Marxism against Conspiracism

But aren’t Marxists (or the ICC at least) also conspiracy theorists? As mentioned above, we stand by the thesis that the ruling class is fully capable of organising elaborate conspiracies in order to further its aims. We identified some historical examples earlier in this article. We also identify an “elite” (the capitalist class) which has concentrated all political and economic power into its hands. Superficially, it would seem, we follow the basic pattern of conspiracy theories.

It is to be expected that, as Marxists, we subscribe to a materialist theory of reality and accordingly reject the notions of that we are living on the brink of Armageddon or that alien lizards are secretly in control of the planet. But why, for example, do we reject the idea of a secret global elite (who are capitalists after all) controlling the entire world, manipulating wars and crises in order to further their own ends?

The reason is based on our understanding of how capitalism functions. While conspiracy theorists may rail against the lizards, the bankers, the Bilderberg Group, etc. they cling to one of the deepest illusions that the bourgeoisie offers: the idea that someone, somewhere, is in control. It seems easier to lay the horror and waste of decadent, decomposing capitalism at the door of a grand conspiracy than understand it for the tragedy it truly is: that is, a society where humanity (even the ruling class) confronts its own economic and social activity as something alien and beyond its control.

The laws of capitalism function independently of the will of capitalists, regardless of how desperately they try to control them (usually through the medium of the state). For example, the current crisis is not the result of the machination of some global elite - on the contrary, the tendency towards crisis more and more escapes their control in spite of their machinations. While it is certainly true that this or that faction of the bourgeoisie will attempt to engineer war or crisis[4] to further their ends, it is important to remember that these aims were usually focused against another faction of the bourgeoisie.

The capitalist class is founded upon the principles of competition, a mechanism that capitalism cannot escape from. Competition is deeply entrenched within the economic processes of capitalism and cannot be overcome by an act of will. This element is expressed with the ruling class’s political and social life in the form of cliques, competition between individuals, corporations, nation states and alliances of nation states. Tendencies acting against competition certainly exist - statification, monopoly, etc - and are exacerbated in the era of decadence, but they can never fully overcome it, merely displace it to a higher level. Competition between companies becomes competition between states; free trade is sacrificed to mercantilism; wars are fought over markets and natural resources and tend towards more and more global conflagrations (world wars). Machiavellianism is a product of the alienated consciousness of the ruling class, the competition of each against all and does not offer the bourgeoisie any means of escaping from the fundamental contradictions in either its economic, ideological or political life.

The highest unity achieved by the bourgeoisie takes place in a revolutionary period, when they are forced to confront the threat of a conscious, organised working class. The Ebert-Groener Pact mentioned above is an example of the intrigues the bourgeoisie is capable of during this situation, but the difficulty of the ruling class maintaining its unity in such a dangerous situation was expressed in the ill-fated Kapp Putsch.

For Marxists then, the bourgeoisie can never achieve the kind of permanent unity required to fully control the evolution of society. Conspiracy theories of the type discussed here thus offer neither a method for understanding the historic crisis of capitalist society, nor do they provide any programme for overthrowing it. Nonetheless, we must expect the influence of conspiracism to grow in the present period as the systemic crisis deepens and class consciousness remains very weak. Communists cannot simply dismiss adherents to such conceptions but confront and expose the reactionary roots of these ideas, while insisting on the genuinely Machiavellian nature of the ruling class.

As the class struggle gathers pace and the proletariat once again feels its own power it will abandon conspiracy theories in favour of its own historic method: Marxism.

Ishamael 8/1/12


[2] Communist in this context was obviously the Stalinism represented by the Eastern Bloc, although it could also apply to any left-wing party that opposed US Imperialism. Naturally, none of these movements represented a genuinely communist or working class politics but similar methods would undoubtedly be used against any true movement of the working class.

[4] For example, the Asian crisis in the late-90s was strongly exacerbated by actions taken by the US bourgeoisie to push forward their economic domination in the region but the situation quickly spiralled out of control and threatened the wider global economy with serious consequences for the US economy.