Pro-Labor Philosopher Wins BBC Poll
Karl Marx Voted “Greatest Philosopher of All Times”
by George Saunders, co-managing editor, Labor Standard
“The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right…I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.”
These words were quoted from an economist at “a big Wall Street investment bank” in an article in the New Yorker magazine nearly ten years ago, in October 1997.
They rightly caught the attention of the late Frank Lovell, who in 1983 had been the founder of our predecessor publication, In Defense of Marxism.
Frank Lovell forwarded the New Yorker article to me, urging that we take note of it in our magazine. Lying in front of me is the envelope from Frank, with the postmark October 29, 1997. (Frank still used “snail mail,” hadn’t gotten into “e-mail” that much.)
Now in July 2005 the title of the 1997 New Yorker article, “The Return of Karl Marx,” is oddly echoed by an unexpected event—namely, that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has just polled its audience on who they think was the greatest philosopher of all times. Marx won hands down, despite a campaign by the pro-boss media, urging people to vote for anyone but Karl Marx. The respectable upper-crust publication, London’s The Economist, urged its readers: “Vote for David Hume!” (David who?) The pro-labor web site “In Defence of Marxism,” based in Britain, was more successful in organizing its readers to vote for Marx.
This was a peculiar turn of events. A seemingly innocuous poll about “philosophy” blew up in the face of the BBC, which recently was reorganized by the Tony Blair government with the aim of dampening down criticism of his and Bush’s war on Iraq. Now the greatest critic of capitalism has unexpectedly been reconfirmed.
Marx himself commented on the surprising, seemingly subterranean processes by which the revolutionary impulse against capitalism constantly reasserts itself. He said of this impulse toward revolution, quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Well said, old mole! Canst work in the earth so fast?”
The revolutionary impulse against capitalism, incidentally, is popping up with great force today in many parts of the world. BBC itself took note that on July 17 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that hundreds of idle companies would be taken over by the revolutionary government and placed under workers control or turned over to workers cooperatives. Chávez said: “This is the revolution. This is socialism,” adding that “revolutionary democracy is the transition, the bridge, the path toward a ‘socialism of the 21st century,’ one that is Bolivarian, Venezuelan, and Latin American.” (See Jorge Martin’s article on this latest development of the revolution in Venezuela elsewhere on the Labor Standard web site.)
BBC itself, reporting on this reappearance in Venezuela of Marx’s “old mole,” also known as the specter of communism, had this to say: “Mr. Chávez again insisted that Venezuelans have a clear choice: ‘Either capitalism, which is the road to hell, or socialism, for those who want to build the kingdom of [heaven] here on Earth.’”
We reprint below two highly pertinent comments from Britain about Marx’s victory in the BBC poll, one from the London Observer by Francis Wheen, author of a recent biography of Karl Marx; the other from the “In Defence of Marxism” web site.
Why Marx is man of the moment
He had globalization pegged 150 years ago
by Francis Wheen
This article first appeared in the Observer (London) on Sunday July 17, 2005. It has been edited slightly for style purposes by Labor Standard. The original article may be found here.
Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx was published by Fourth Estate
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 favorite thinker. “His genocidal disciples include Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot—and even Mugabe. So why has Karl Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher ever?”
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 evolution.”
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 Revisited.”
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 fundamentalism.”
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 globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence—issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realizing 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 Globalization (2000), “but as a prophet of the ‘universal interdependence of nations,’ as he called globalization, he can still seem startlingly relevant.” Their greatest fear was that “the more successful globalization 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 revolutionizing 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 Manifesto.
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 vigor, tyrannizing 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.
Our readers will recall that The Economist called on its readers to vote Marx off the top of the list of the most revered philosophers. We appealed to our readers to vote for Marx and keep him at the top. In spite of The Economist’s best attempts Marx won! This comes as no surprise to us. We await The Economist's explanation with interest.
Week after week Karl Marx was at the top of the poll. Melvyn Bragg organised the poll for his Radio 4 series, In Our Time, and every week he would express surprise that Marx was still ahead of all the others. The Economist magazine then intervened appealing to its readers to vote and knock Marx off the top of the list and called for a vote for David Hume. But Marx received 28% of the votes cast, coming first and beating David Hume, hands down.
No doubt The Economist editorial board will be disappointed. They tell us that Marxism is outdated, that capitalism works, etc., etc. Unfortunately for them, people have brains and they can work things out for themselves. What is happening today all over the world does not negate Marx but confirms what he wrote. As Eric Hobsbawm has explained, trying to find a reason why Marx won, “The Communist Manifesto contains a stunning prediction of the nature and effects of globalization.”
In fact, Marx is as relevant today – if not more relevant – as when he published the Communist Manifesto 150 years ago. Marx’s studies of capitalism and how it works led him to predict such phenomena as globalization, monopolization, the growing divide between rich and poor and the strengthening of the proletariat, and so on.
His philosophical outlook, dialectical materialism, has stood the test of time, and is a precious instrument in our hands to unravel all the complex mechanisms of economy, politics, and even science. It allows us to have a global view of all processes and thus be able to develop a perspective for the future development of society.
The problem the bourgeois philosophers have with Marx is that he not only analyzed all the contradictions of the capitalist system; he also pointed to an alternative. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Marx explained that capitalism had to be overthrown and a more rational system put in its place, socialism.
So although, the media would like to portray Britain as a sleepy, phlegmatic place where the class struggle belongs to the past, reality is somewhat different. In spite of all the attempts to fill people’s heads with incomprehensible language, the real world is still out there and people live in it. That explains why so many people voted for Marx the revolutionary. They believe that this society is not the best that history provides. Far from it, they believe a new society is possible. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may have a few surprises coming their way in the years ahead!
July 14, 2005