[ Financial Times December 28 2006 ]
Karl Marx. Perhaps the
greatest thinker that ever lived.
What does it take to kill an idea whose time has passed?
One would have thought that several decades of experimentation with
communism would have convinced most observers thatit was a murderous and
economically sub-optimal creed. Even its most fervent supporters could
scarcely contest the view that it has spectacularly failed to live up to its
creators' utopian expectations.
According to the Black Book of Communism, published in 1997 by a group of
French scholars, communist regimes were responsible for the "class genocide"
of almost 100m people during the 20th century. Apologists for Joseph Stalin
used to justify such brutality by arguing that you could not make an
omelette without breaking eggs. But, as George Orwell once famously
responded: where's the omelette?
Leszek Kolakowski, one of the world's foremost students - and critics - of
Marxism, thought he had buried the communist idea as long ago as 1974. "The
only medicine communism has invented - the centralised, beyond social
control, state ownership of the national wealth and one-party rule - is
worse than the illness it is supposed to cure," he wrote in a damning open
letter published in the Socialist Register. Arguing that the communist idea
could never be successfully modified or revived, he concluded: "This skull
will never smile again."
His view seemed to be vindicated when China reverted to capitalism in the
1980s as the best means of promoting prosperity and the Soviet Union came
crashing down in 1991. The communist diehards in impoverished Pyongyang and
Havana who survive today are hardly the brightest advertisements for the
vitality of the Marxist faith.
[In passing such dismissive judgment on the potential of socialism and the supposed "failure" of these new societies, Thornhill, like most bourgeois thinkers, conveniently forgets that such judgments are invalidated by the undeniable fact that these young and fragile societies have been the target of continuous economic, political and military attacks by the world's most formidable conservative superpower, the United States, in conjuction with its allies in the capitalist bloc—an unequal fight in which all these nations have enjoyed a mature industrial base. Cuba and Korea have sustained more than a half century of such unrelenting hostility, and they are still forced to divert precious resources to defense from imperialist assault, a very real possibility, while the Soviet Union itself was the target of an uninterrupted "quarantine" until its demise in 1991.—Eds.]
Yet, it seems, the edges of Karl Marx's lips are beginning to twitch again
in Europe as fresh attempts are made to reanimate his ideas. Marx should not
be held accountable for those who acted on his (often contradictory)
analysis, his latter-day supporters claim. Besides, it is wrong to equate
Marxist theory with communist practice. As Marx himself declared, he was not
a Marxist. It would be as unfair to blame Marx for the excesses committed in
his name, they claim, as it would be to condemn Jesus for the evils of the
The latest surge of globalisation, which is in so many ways reminiscent of
the era in which Marx lived, has undoubtedly led to renewed interest in his
critique of capitalism. Globalisation may be lifting millions of people out
of absolute poverty, but it has also led to startling divergences in
relative wealth. How can it be, as a United Nations report recently
estimated, that the richest 2 per cent of the world's adult population own
more than 50 per cent of global assets while the poorest 50 per cent own
only 1 per cent? How can one understand capital without Das Kapital?
"Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only
now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most
influential thinker of the twenty-first century," Francis Wheen, his British
biographer, concludes in a recent essay on Das Kapital.
The eloquent Mr Wheen even helped to persuade BBC listeners that Marx was
the most important philosopher of all time in a radio poll conducted last
Across the Channel, Marx has never really gone out of fashion - even if
Marxist ideas have become an internalised rhetorical reflex among
politicians more than a meaningful programme for action.
François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist UDF party, argues that the
French left has never been properly demarxisée. Just look at the 2002
presidential elections in which two rival Trotskyist candidates, the head of
the Communist party of France, and the leader of the Revolutionary Communist
League won 17 per cent of the vote between them in the first round.
Much of the rhetoric from mainstream French politicians ahead of next year's
presidential elections has a decidedly Marxist ring to it.
Ségolène Royal, the presidential candidate of the opposition Socialist
party, constantly talks about the need to rebalance capital and labour
declaring it is her intention to "frighten the capitalists". Even Nicolas
Sarkozy, the presidential contender from the ostensibly centre-right ruling
UMP party, rails against "rogue bosses" who pay themselves obscene bonuses
while shifting jobs offshore.
One prominent socialist politician says that the new class divide in France
and elsewhere in the developed world is between the rich - including most
French people - and the super-rich.
This new globalised "aristocracy" of financiers, industrialists and
policymakers now spans the globe preaching "market fundamentalism". Its
members have more allegiances to each other than to any nation state. While
telling their employees that job insecurity, reduced welfare benefits and
lower salaries are the condition of the modern world, they don golden
parachutes to protect themselves from failure.
Jacques Attali, the polymath French financier, has also been busily buffing
up Marx's reputation as a prophet of our globalised times. In a recent
biography of Marx, Mr Attali argues that the 19th century philosopher still
has much to teach us about the nature of capitalism, the shocks that
modernisation inflicts on traditional societies, the rise of competitive
individualism and the spread of insecurity.
According to Mr Attali, Marx answers questions that are only now being
asked. It is only in our days that we can see Marx in his true light,
unencumbered by his association with the experience of communism.
However, Marx would surely have been grumpy about his new-found status as an
analyst of our times rather than as an agitator for revolutionary change.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the
point, however, is to change it," he wrote.
The skull may not be smiling so much as frowning.
A HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE | By Cyrano
Alexanderplatz (Berlin) monument to the founders of
scientific socialism, Marx and Engels.
Hounded by poverty most of his adult life, Marx's life was punctuated by tragedy but enriched by the love and gratitude of his closest friends, beginning with the extraordinary friendship of fellow philosopher and revolutionist Friedrich Engels. Only 11 people attended his funeral in London, in 1883, just two years after his wife's own passing, a fact that no doubt affected Marx profoundly. Several of Marx's closest friends spoke on this occasion, including Karl Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic party, and Friedrich Engels. Engels' speech included the words:
"On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever."
Simple, truthful and generous words, and so characteristic of Engels.