[OPE-L] Why Marx is man of the moment

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Jul 18 2005 - 09:18:16 EDT



Why Marx is man of the moment

He had globalisation sussed 150 years ago

Francis Wheen
Sunday July 17, 2005

A penniless asylum seeker in London was vilified
across two pages of the Daily Mail last week. No
surprises there, perhaps - except that the
villain in question has been dead since 1883.
'Marx the Monster' was the Mail's furious
reaction to the news that thousands of Radio 4
listeners had chosen Karl Marx as their favourite
thinker. 'His genocidal disciples include Stalin,
Mao, Pol Pot - and even Mugabe. So why has Karl
Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher

The puzzlement is understandable. Fifteen years
ago, after the collapse of communism in Eastern
Europe, there appeared to be a general assumption
that Marx was now an ex-parrot. He had kicked the
bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil and been
buried forever under the rubble of the Berlin
Wall. No one need think about him - still less
read him - ever again.

'What we are witnessing,' Francis Fukuyama
proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, 'is not
just the ... passing of a particular period of
postwar history, but the end of history as such:
that is, the end point of mankind's ideological

But history soon returned with a vengeance. By
August 1998, economic meltdown in Russia,
currency collapses in Asia and market panic
around the world prompted the Financial Times to
wonder if we had moved 'from the triumph of
global capitalism to its crisis in barely a
decade'. The article was headlined 'Das Kapital

Even those who gained most from the system began
to question its viability. The billionaire
speculator George Soros now warns that the herd
instinct of capital-owners such as himself must
be controlled before they trample everyone else
underfoot. 'Marx and Engels gave a very good
analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago,
better in some ways, I must say, than the
equilibrium theory of classical economics,' he
writes. 'The main reason why their dire
predictions did not come true was because of
countervailing political interventions in
democratic countries. Unfortunately we are once
again in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions
from the lessons of history. This time the danger
comes not from communism but from market

In October 1997 the business correspondent of the
New Yorker, John Cassidy, reported a conversation
with an investment banker. 'The longer I spend on
Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx
was right,' the financier said. 'I am absolutely
convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to
look at capitalism.' His curiosity aroused,
Cassidy read Marx for the first time. He found
'riveting passages about globalisation,
inequality, political corruption, monopolisation,
technical progress, the decline of high culture,
and the enervating nature of modern existence -
issues that economists are now confronting anew,
sometimes without realising that they are walking
in Marx's footsteps'.

Quoting the famous slogan coined by James
Carville for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign
in 1992 ('It's the economy, stupid'), Cassidy
pointed out that 'Marx's own term for this theory
was "the materialist conception of history", and
it is now so widely accepted that analysts of all
political views use it, like Carville, without
any attribution.'

Like Molière's bourgeois gentleman who discovered
to his amazement that for more than 40 years he
had been speaking prose without knowing it, much
of the Western bourgeoisie absorbed Marx's ideas
without ever noticing. It was a belated reading
of Marx in the 1990s that inspired the financial
journalist James Buchan to write his brilliant
study Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning
of Money (1997).

'Everybody I know now believes that their
attitudes are to an extent a creation of their
material circumstances,' he wrote, 'and that
changes in the ways things are produced
profoundly affect the affairs of humanity even
outside the workshop or factory. It is largely
through Marx, rather than political economy, that
those notions have come down to us.'

Even the Economist journalists John Micklethwait
and Adrian Wooldridge, eager cheerleaders for
turbo-capitalism, acknowledge the debt. 'As a
prophet of socialism Marx may be kaput,' they
wrote in A Future Perfect: The Challenge and
Hidden Promise of Globalisation (2000), 'but as a
prophet of the "universal interdependence of
nations" as he called globalisation, he can still
seem startlingly relevant.' Their greatest fear
was that 'the more successful globalisation
becomes the more it seems to whip up its own
backlash' - or, as Marx himself said, that modern
industry produces its own gravediggers.

The bourgeoisie has not died. But nor has Marx:
his errors or unfulfilled prophecies about
capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the
piercing accuracy with which he revealed the
nature of the beast. 'Constant revolutionising of
production, uninterrupted disturbance of all
social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and
agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from
all earlier ones,' he wrote in The Communist

Until quite recently most people in this country
seemed to stay in the same job or institution
throughout their working lives - but who does so
now? As Marx put it: 'All that is solid melts
into air.'

In his other great masterpiece, Das Kapital, he
showed how all that is truly human becomes
congealed into inanimate objects - commodities -
which then acquire tremendous power and vigour,
tyrannising the people who produce them.

The result of this week's BBC poll suggests that
Marx's portrayal of the forces that govern our
lives - and of the instability, alienation and
exploitation they produce - still resonates, and
can still bring the world into focus. Far from
being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall,
he may only now be emerging in his true
significance. For all the anguished,
uncomprehending howls from the right-wing press,
Karl Marx could yet become the most influential
thinker of the 21st century.

· Francis Wheen's acclaimed biography Karl Marx is published by Fourth Estate

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