[OPE-L] Hobsbawm and Attali debate Marx

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Mar 09 2006 - 10:38:16 EST



In the past week Eric Hobsbawm, the pre-eminent historian and avowed
communist, debated the role of Karl Marx in the 21st century with the
one-time international banker Jacques Attali. They came to some unlikely

Hobsbawm: Here we are, paying our respects to Karl Marx. Jacques Attali's
biography of him, which has sold like hot cakes in France, is being
translated in Britain. I've only done the biography of Marx in The
Dictionary of National Biography, in a more modest way. When you consider,
it's really rather strange that we should be here to talk to an enormous
audience about it. One can't say that he died a failure in 1883, because
his writings had begun to have some impact in Russia and a political
movement in Germany was already in being under the leadership of his
disciples. And yet, how could he have been satisfied with his life's work?
He'd written a few brilliant pamphlets and the torso of an uncompleted
major work: Das Kapital. His major political effort since the failure of
the 1848 revolution, the so-called First International of 1864-73, had
foundered. He had established no place of significance in the politics of
the intellectual life of Britain, where he had lived for over half his
lifetime. And yet what an extraordinary posthumous political success.

There is no other case of a thinker who left such a tremendous mark on the
20th century. Yet, for more than 15 years after the end of the Soviet
Union, Marx was in no man's land. Some journalist has even suggested that
we are here tonight to try to rescue him from the dustbin of history. Marx
today is incredibly influential. I don't think enough has been made of the
BBC poll which named him the most famous of all philosophers. If you
actually put "Marx" into Google you will find that there are several
million entries - in fact, 39 million when I tried it last time. He is
much the largest of the great international presences, exceeded only by
Charles Darwin and Adam Smith.

How are we to explain this sudden re-emergence? First, I think, the end of
the official Marxism of the USSR has liberated Marx from the public
identification with Leninism in theory, and with the Leninist regimes in
practice. People have begun to notice once again that there are things in
Marx that are really quite interesting. And this, in a sense, takes me to
the second and main reason: that the globalised capitalist world that
emerged in the 1990s was in some ways uncannily like the world Marx
predicted in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. This became clear in the
public reaction to the 150th anniversary of that manifesto - which,
incidentally, was a year of quite dramatic economic upheaval in large
parts of the world. Paradoxically, it was the capitalists who rediscovered
Marx, more than others. The socialists had by that time had the courage
knocked out of them, and they weren't particularly trying to celebrate the

I recall my own amazement when I was approached at that time by the editor
of the in-flight magazine of United Airlines - on which, I may take it,
most passengers are people travelling on business. He thought that the
readers would be interested in a debate on Marx, because after all it did
seem relevant to the present situation. A year or two later, when I found
myself having lunch with George Soros, I was equally amazed when he said:
"What do you think of Marx?" Well now, knowing that our opinions on
various things didn't agree, I gave a sort of ambiguous answer, saying:
"Some people think he's good, some people think he's bad," to which Soros
said: "Do you know, I've just been reading that man and there is an awful
lot in what he says."

So here we are tonight. Jacques Attali, I need hardly remind you, has been
highly active in both politics and intentional finance. He is not, and has
never been, a Marxist, but he, too, comes to the conclusion that now is
the time when Marx has something to say.

Attali: What he tried with the international socialist movement was an
amazing attempt to think about the world in global terms. Marx is an
amazingly modern thinker, because when you look at what he has written, it
is not a theory of what an organised socialist country should be like, but
how capitalism will be in the future. Contrary to the caricature of
Marxism, he is first an admirer of capitalism. For him, it is a much
better system than any other before it, because he considers the earlier
systems to be obscurantist. Once or twice he had the idea that it was
going to be the end, but he very rapidly decided that this was not the
case, and that capitalism had a huge future.

What is very modern also in his view is that he considered that capitalism
would end only when it was a global force, when the whole of the working
class was part of it, when nations disappeared, when technology was able
to transform the life of a country. He mentioned China and India as
potential partners of capitalism, and said, for instance, that
protectionism is a mistake, that free trade is a condition for progress.

For Marx, capitalism has to be worldwide before we think about socialism.
Socialism for him is beyond capitalism and not instead of capitalism. He
has much say on globalisation, what is happening to movement of companies,
delocalisation and everything that is linked to the way we live today. In
a sense, the Soviet Union was destroying or interrupting the validity of
Marx's thinking and the fall of the Berlin Wall is giving back a raison
d'etre to his work, because Marx was thinking of the world globally and
the Soviet system was a nightmare that he did not forecast.

Hobsbawm: We now have the realisation of some of what Marx anticipated: a
globalised economy. It has had a number of effects which, however, he
would not have predicted. For instance, the Marxist prediction that a
growing proletariat in the industrialised countries would overthrow
capitalism didn't work, because the progress of capitalism eventually does
without the working class, as it does without the peasantry. Up to 1914
the prediction was quite reasonable, and indeed, it created mass parties
which still exist. In short, the basic conditions under which Marxism
operates in the 21st century will be quite different from those of the
20th century. But one thing will remain: the necessity not only to
criticise capitalism, but to demonstrate that the very process of
globalisation in the capitalist way generates not only growth, but also
tensions and crisis, and that the process of capitalism is incapable of
coming to terms with these.

Attali: Marx predicted that capitalism will grow, that inequalities will
grow with it, that the working class will be destroyed and that the
workers will be poor. This is not true in the developed world, but if you
look at things globally, it is true. Concentration of wealth is growing
worldwide. The share of wealth which is owned by a small number is
growing, and the number of rich people is narrowing. There are three
billion people who live on less than $2 a day and out of nine billion
human beings 40 years from now, 4.5 billion will be below the poverty
line. This is Marx's nightmare. And you cannot say that they are not
workers. Even if they are unemployed, they are workers. And people who
work with only their head, or digital workers - they are still workers.
The contradictions at the heart of the market economy, to use the modern
term, are more true than they ever were when applied to capitalism, which
had 19th-century connotations.

If you look at the history of mankind in the past two centuries, this is
the fourth attempt at globalisation. The first came at the end of the 18th
century, collapsing with the Napoleonic wars. The second came at the end
of the 19th century and collapsed with the First World War. The
globalisation of the 1920s collapsed with the Second World War. We are in
the fourth attempt at globalisation in two centuries and the most probable
outcome is that this attempt will go the same way as the previous, leading
to isolationism and protectionism.

In 1849 Marx wrote about going back to protectionism and other kinds of
barbarism. At the beginning of the 20th century it was impossible to
imagine, and today is the same. We cannot imagine the barbarism that will
happen, but it is obvious that it will. The only way to imagine a solution
will be to organise, on a worldwide level, a compromise between the market
and democracy.

These are edited highlights of a debate held on 2 March as part of Jewish
Book Week. It was chaired by John Kampfner, NS editor

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