Sat, Jul 23, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Why Karl Marx is the man of the moment

By Francis Wheen  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

A penniless asylum seeker in London was vilified across two pages of a British right-wing tabloid last week. No surprises there, perhaps -- except that the villain in question has been dead since 1883.

"Marx the Monster" was the newspaper's furious reaction to the news that thousands of BBC 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?" it asked.

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 past his time. He had 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," Soros 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," he warns.

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 Moliere'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.

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