Prospect, October 2003
Donald Sassoon: Well, Dr Marx, you are all washed up, aren't you? Fifteen years ago your theories ruled half the world. Now what's left? Cuba? North Korea?
Karl Marx: My "theories"- as you put it - never "ruled." I had followers I neither chose nor sought, and for whom I have no more responsibility than Jesus had for Torquemada or Muhammad for Osama bin Laden. Self-appointed followers are the price of success. Most of my contemporaries would love to be as washed up as you think I am. I wrote that the point was not to explain the world, but to change it. And how many eminent Victorians have done so?
DS: How about John Stuart Mill?
KM He was a well-meaning plagiarist and somewhat touching in his exertion to reconcile the irreconcilable, and he is still read by second-rate minds at Oxford or Yale; but has anyone heard of him in Peoria, Illinois, not to speak of Pyongyang? You recall William Jevons, founder of the theory of marginal utility. He was big in my day. But when did you last meet a Jevonsian? And Comte, the father of sociology (a ridiculous discipline, if ever there was one), is he in print? And, please, don't ask me about Herbert Spencer, whose forlorn tomb lies in the shadow of my monument at Highgate cemetery. No doubt this setting of Marx opposite Spencer was a gravedigger's idea of a joke.
DS Are there no great bourgeois thinkers?
KM Of course there are. And I punctiliously paid my respects to them. But today few of my enemies bother reading Adam Smith or David Ricardo. And great scholars like Tschernyschewsky are now forgotten.
DS What about Jeremy Bentham?
KM What a provocation! Bentham, that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence. A purely English phenomenon who could have been manufactured only in England. Never has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way.
DS How about more recent thinkers?
KM The fashion-following apologists of the propertied classes, now and again, try to find an adequate rival for me. They just can't bear the thought of lacking a recognised genius. So they resurrect Hayek one summer and, by the next spring, they are all wearing Popper (now that's someone with only one idea in his head and, boy, did he flog it to death and irrefutably so!). The very lazy ones go for Isaiah Berlin-so easy to comprehend, so stupendously unoriginal, so devastatingly tautological. Of my contemporaries only Darwin made the big time. And I understood it at once. Friedrich convinced me to dedicate Das Kapital to him, but Darwin, coward to the last, turned me down. On reflection, he was probably right. Had he accepted, natural selection would have been regarded as yet another Marxist conspiracy.
DS OK. No one underestimates your renown. But you must agree: Marxism is not what it used to be...
KM In reality my work has never been as important as it is now. Over the last 40 years or so it has conquered the academy in the most advanced countries in the world. Historians, economists, social scientists, and even, to my surprise, some literary critics have all turned to the materialist conception. The most exciting history currently produced in the US and Europe is the most "Marxistic" ever. Just go to the annual convention of the American Social Science History Association, which I attend regularly as a ghost. There they earnestly examine the interconnection between institutional and political structures and the world of production. They all talk about classes, structures, economic determination, power relations, oppressed and oppressors. And they all pretend to have read me-a sure sign of success. Even diplomatic historians-or at least the best of them (a small bunch admittedly)-now look at the economic basis of great powers. Of course much of this work is crude economic determinism. But you can go a long way with "vulgar" Marxism. Look at the success of simplistic theories propounding the view that empires collapse because they spend too much. Well, at least the economy is back in. Social history, the history of ordinary men and women, has supplanted the idiotic fixation with great men. Of course, many things have moved on. Thank God for that. I was never one for standing still. Das Kapital was unfinished, and not just because I died too soon but because, in a very real sense, it could not be finished. Capitalism moves on and the analysis always trails behind.
DS: So what have you achieved? What's left?
KM I devoted my life to the study of capitalism. I tried to lay bare its laws of motion. I tried to get to the kernel of its fundamental...
DS: You were obsessed with the economy...
KM And how right I was. You are all obsessed with the economy and, for the foreseeable future, you will remain so. I don't need to explain this to readers of the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. Nor to politicians who promise heaven on earth and then say "you can't buck the markets," and that globalisation (the current polite name for world capitalism) is unstoppable. Who is obsessed? Do you remember that petty Arkansas politician who became US president and played around with the intern? What's his name?
KM Yes. "It's the economy, stupid!" Well, my dear boy, I said it first.
DS: At some length...
KM True, Das Kapital is no soundbite. Yet when required I produced my share of good quotes. "Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains" is better than anything the overpaid underbrained Downing Street spinners can come up with.
DS: But the idea that today's workers have nothing to lose is absurd.
KM You are right. Your workers-the workers of Europe and North America-now have plenty to lose. In my day, of course, they were still treated abominably. Even 20 years after the Manifesto, although England was richer than other countries, matters had not improved all that much. The search for profits made more and more victims-and not just among the workers. In 1866 I noted the sensational newspaper stories about railway crashes. In those days, when Britain ruled the waves, the driver of a locomotive engine would work for 30 hours on the trot with disastrous consequences. Railway catastrophes were then called "acts of God." I called them acts of capitalism. (Now, of course, things are completely different, aren't they?) Or take the report in the London papers of June 1863 under the heading, "Death from simple overwork." It dealt with the death of Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old milliner, employed in a respectable establishment. This girl worked, on average, over 16 hours without a break. As it was the "season" it was necessary to conjure up quickly the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies invited to a ball in honour of the Princess of Wales. Walkley had worked without stop for over 26 hours, with 30 other girls in one small room. You'll find all of this in Kapital. If you cared to read it, dear boy, you will realise that it is not just a dry economic treatise. It drips with outrage and indignation.
DS: But such things were exceptions even then-which is why they were reported. They no longer happen. Train drivers now have nice homes, go on foreign holidays...
KM Yes, yes, and the main reason is that my side, my party, the socialists, the trade unionists, the reformers whom I supported and encouraged, set a limit to capitalist exploitation. Or, in the awful jargon used by the complacent scribblers of the bourgeois press, they erected labour market rigidities. But elsewhere, in the former colonies, where there is no democracy, no trade unions, no socialist parties, the degradation of those who have nothing to sell but their labour power more than matches the sweatshops of my days. And even in the west, wherever the workers are not organised, things are just a little better. Why don't august organs such as Prospect lay bare the realities of your world instead of gazing nervously at the navel of the bourgeoisie and keeping its readership snug and sheltered? Everything I denounced still goes on. In the capitalist landmark itself, the US of A, deskilling and lower wages occur across a broad spectrum of industries-from the most modern to the most backward. New sweatshops and homework have broken the backs of the trade unions in high technology areas such as California. So when I hear sanctimonious claptrap about human rights and freedom from the representatives of the bourgeois order, the Bushes and Blairs and tutti quanti, I shake my venerable head disconsolately. Do these people ever go to war to impose limits to the exploitation of labour? Do they ever fight for the freedom of workers to join unions? All they ever do is replace "unfriendly" governments with "friendly" ones-governments friendly to capital accumulation.
DS: But in the west, workers used the freedoms you mention to improve their lot under capitalist national states, not to abolish them. Admit it: the working class has been a disappointment to you.
KM It is true that the national state which had appeared as the workers chief oppressor turned out, in the following 100 years, to be their main source of loyalty. The middle class, especially the intellectuals, proved to be far more internationalist than the proletariat. We had a premonition about this reformism. I recall the first elections held under the 1867 Reform Act. Manchester (Manchester!) had returned three Tories to two Liberals. Engels was upset. He wrote that "the proletariat has discredited itself terribly."
DS: How do you explain it?
KM The socialist struggle presents an unavoidable contradiction. We need to fight for reforms but each gain saps the revolutionary will of the workers. Strong workers extract real improvements. Weak ones starve. You don't seriously think that the bourgeoisie would have conceded the eight-hour day, paid holidays, old age pensions, a free health service, education for all, and national insurance in a paroxysm of philanthropy? To get these things it was necessary to strike not at the heart of the capitalists but at their profit. You don't imagine that capital goes to Thailand, Taiwan, Bangladesh or Brazil hoping to find well-organised workers, conscious of their rights and able to secure high wages? The conditions of life achieved by workers in the west cannot be writ large over the entire planet. Capitalism can be global-as I explained a long time ago when capital was but a gleam in a vast worldwide bog dominated by petty commodity production and peasants. But can everything else go global? Swedish social democracy? Or the lifestyle reached by many American workers? Even the Catholics know that they can't all be popes. Will one day the 1.3bn Chinese and the 1bn Indians go to work driving their own cars powered by cheap petrol? And return home to air-conditioned rooms? And in the morning spray their armpits (4.6bn of them!) with deodorant without hearing the deafening sound of the ozone layer cracking? Are there no limits to growth?
DS: So now you too resort to Malthus and say that the future may be catastrophic. May I remind you, Dr Marx, that you were a Victorian optimist, a child of the Enlightenment. In the Manifesto you...
KM The Manifesto, the Schei▀manifesto! Let me put it into perspective. I wrote the damn thing in February 1848, when I was under 30. Most of my scientific work was still to come. The Manifesto, commissioned by an insignificant leftist group, was written against a tight deadline. As it hit the bookshops (well, that's a figure of speech, I don't think it sold more than 1,000 copies in 1848) Europe was swept by a wave of revolution: France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy. Everywhere the masses were clamouring for a constitution, for freedom, for democracy. The Manifesto reflected the optimism of those heady days. We thought that everything was possible. Imagination had seized power.
DS: And then?
KM Then the counter-revolution set in. Some gains were achieved here and there, but on the whole, my side lost. In France, the home of our most cherished hopes, a little upstart with a grand name, Louis Napoleon, took over. He was the first elected dictator in modern history. I wrote an instant book (I use your terminology, just to show that my century had invented most of what yours claims for itself). Contrary to all the neoliberal philistines who think I'm an economic determinist-coming from the dummkopfs who go round shouting that markets are the basis of freedom, what chutzpah!-I explained that when the bourgeoisie is threatened, it will give up power to anyone it can pick up from the gutter. Who cares about civil rights and elections and press freedom when the rule of capital is in danger? The bourgeoisie, realising that its political rule was incompatible with its own survival, destroyed its own regime, vilified its own parliament and invited Napoleon to rule. It abdicated its powers to the scumbag leader of a party of decayed rouÚs, swindlers, mountebanks, gamblers, untenured academics, and beggars. With these dregs the second empire was created out of a victory in a popular referendum. All this I analysed. All this I deconstructed (yes, I keep up with modern charlatans). The result: the first theory of fascism. So don't tell me I have ever been under any illusion about the people. I know how to look at the harshest reality with equanimity. I realised we had lost, as your socialist friends have now. And I plucked up my courage and went to work. I spent my days in the British Museum reading room, solitary and proud, my soul devoured with rage, my arse festered with carbuncles, but my mind doing its duty, the duty of intellectuals: face reality.
DS: No one doubts your integrity. It is your analysis which is questionable. If democratic governments can be a threat to the bourgeoisie, then it is surely wrong to say, as you wrote in the Manifesto, that the "executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
KM Well, was I that much off the mark? Is it not the case that all governments are constrained by capitalism's own structures? That, when all is said and done, they are forced to do all they can to ensure its profitability, train its workforce, repair its failures, and mop up the debris it excretes on the way? And they all do it, all slaves to the imperatives of capitalism: the left and the right and the middle and the socialists and fascists and liberals and greens. Once in power they must keep the show on the road. If the show runs well, then they tax and spend and redistribute this and that and help the poor and the sick just as the Victorians did. When the profits roll in they bask in morality and ethics. When profits decline and the economy enters into one of the economic cycles I had predicted, philanthropy is discarded like an ageing mistress. Then your good bourgeois discovers that you cannot tax and spend, that the unemployed are scroungers, that public medicine costs too much, that single mothers are feckless. The conscience of the bourgeoisie is closely wired to the vicissitudes of the stock exchange.
DS: And what about the intellectuals?
KM Second-rate theorists; in reality the paid lackeys of the rich. The thing about bourgeois scribblers is that they always theorise after the event. They pick up intellectual garbage, polish it up, call it theory and serve it up as science. Rebellion against capitalist modernity takes the form of religious fanaticism and they call it "a clash of civilisations." Communism falls and the "end of history" is proclaimed-Oh poor Hegel, what would he say? The first time a great thinker, the second time a Fukuyama farce?
DS: Calm down. Let's move on. I've got to ask you this: the Soviet Union, the gulag, communist terror.
KM I thought you would. I must admit that I am as vain as the next person and all this personality cult and Marx-worship did get to me. It did tickle me to see my face on banknotes of the old DDR and a Marxplatz in every Prussian city. Of course, thanks to Engels's marketing skills and the efforts of Bernstein and of that tedious man, Kautsky, I became the grand guru of the socialist movement soon after my demise. Consequently Russian westernisers had to take me as seriously as electricity. So I was not surprised when Lenin decided to turn me into the Bible. Lenin was a clever politician with good instincts. But he was also a fundamentalist determined to find in my works the justification for whatever it was he wanted to do. He made "Marxism" up as he went along. This detestable habit, typical of religions since time immemorial, spread everywhere. I began to have the feeling that even my shopping lists were being drafted into the service of this or that faction of the movement. Take the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." This was a formula I had devised to suggest, following its ancient Roman usage, an exceptional government in a time of crisis. I must have used this expression no more than ten times in my life. I can't tell you my surprise when this resurfaced as a central idea of Marxism, used to justify one-party rule. What can I say? And I was rather surprised when the first so-called socialist revolution occurred in such a deeply backward country run by Slavs-of all people. What the Bolsheviks were doing was accomplishing the bourgeois revolution that the Russian bourgeoisie was too small and stupid to carry out. The communists used the state to create a modern industrial system. If one must call this the "dictatorship of the proletariat," well, so be it.
DS: But the purges, the crimes, the blood....
KM I did say that capital is born dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
DS: I mean communism not capitalism.
KM The Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution waged against a capitalist state. It was a revolution against a semi-feudal autocracy. It was about the construction of modern industry, modern society. Industrial revolutions always occur at great cost whether led by communists or pukka bourgeois. Your modern political accountants, as they scavenge through history to make the case for the prosecution, have they totted up the deaths caused by colonialism, and capitalism? Have they added up all the Africans who died in slavery on their way to America? All the American Indians massacred? All the dead of capitalist civil wars? All those killed by the diseases caused by modern industry? All the dead of the two world wars? Of course Stalin and co were criminals. But do you think that Russia would have become a modern industrial power by democratic, peaceful means? Which road to industrialisation has been victimless, and undertaken under a benign system of civil liberties and human rights? Japan? Korea? Taiwan? Germany? Italy? France? Britain and its empire? What were the alternatives to Lenin and Stalin and the red terror? Little Red Riding Hood? The alternative would have been some Cossack-backed antisemitic dictator as cruel and paranoid as Stalin (or Trotsky; frankly I have no preference), far more corrupt and far less efficient.
DS: So was it all inevitable?
KM That I don't know and neither do you. But don't you dare to reproach me with one drop of blood or one writer in jail. May I remind you that I was a political exile because I defended freedom of speech, that I lived all my life in shabby conditions and that I died in 1883 when Lenin was 13 and Stalin four. I could have written a bestselling "Black Book of Capitalism" and listed all the crimes committed in its name. But I did not. I examined its misdeeds dispassionately, in a balanced way as I would examine now those of communism. Much as I like polemic I knew capitalism was better than anything that preceded it and that it could lay the basis for the realm of true freedom, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from the state, which is what communism is. Take the piece I wrote on the Indian revolt of 1857 in the New York Daily Tribune. English soldiers committed abominations: raping women, roasting whole villages. Did I use this to score some petty points? I did not. Nor did I wax sentimental over the destruction of idyllic native communities. These I denounced as the solid foundations of oriental despotism and tools of superstition. I explained that British imperialism was bringing about a social revolution and celebrated it, but I saw no reason not to lament the devastating effects of English industry on India.
DS: How about your early writings on alienation? The 1844 manuscripts were popular in the 1960s. People saw their relevance to the modern world.
KM Nonsense. The reason I did not publish such stuff is that it was inconsequential claptrap. It is typical that the disaffected petty bourgeois intelligentsia would have lapped this up. I have no time for them.
DS: So you don't think your relation with Hegel...
KM Hegel Schmegel. I must tell you a secret: I never actually read, except in the most cursory fashion, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit or his Science of Logic. Life's too short.
DS: This will be a bit of a shock in some quarters.
KM People should read the great English economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Well, not really English: one's a Scot, the other a Sephardic Jew-clever people of good stock, who know the value of money. Germans like Hegel transform hats into ideas. I prefer the Brits who transform ideas into hats.
DS: What do you make of present-day socialism?
KM It has been moribund for a long time. It fulfilled its task: civilising capitalism in its heartland. More could not be asked of it. It is now going quietly. Communism too has collapsed, its task fulfilled: the construction of capitalism. They understand this well in China-where the next century will play itself out. In Russia, where we are witnessing the transition from lumpen communism to lumpen capitalism, it's a different matter. But how can you build anything with the Russians? One should read their novels, listen to their music, but as for a viable economy...
DS: How about Blair, Schr÷der, the third way?
KM Do I have to have a view about these people? To say that history will forget them is too grandiose. They won't even register. And this shows how low your lot has sunk. In my days we faced Bismarck, Lincoln, Gladstone and Disraeli... real enemies.
DS: So that's it? The triumph of capitalism.
KM Quite, but let's be a bit dialectical. As this is not a system where everyone can win, there will be resistance. For now it's just puny sects playing at revolution. Or the "No Global" bunch , the anti-globalisers...
DS: What do you think of them?
KM A mishmash of inchoate fragments. But better than nothing. At least they stand up to capital, but they won't change the world, let alone explain it.
DS: And feminism?
KM I did write that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. But there is far to go. The majority of workers in the world are now women, but the vast majority of feminists are not workers. What many western feminists want is to share power with western man. And why not? Who would want to be some schmuck's hausfrau? But this makes no difference to the feminine army of labour.
DS: What about America?
KM Always liked the Yankees: no feudalism, no hallowed traditions. Of course, a lot of cant and religion. But somehow they come out of every capitalist crisis stronger and stronger. Wonderful system of government. Fake democracy, fake elections, fake political system surrounded by humbug and greedy lawyers. This allows business to get on with its tasks, buying candidates, a bribe here, a bribe there. The people are not taken in. Half of them don't bother to vote. For the other half, politics is harmless fun, like watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I moved the headquarters of the first international of workers to New York not just to control it better but also because America was becoming the workers' country par excellence. It is really the only working-class country in the world. Their games, their culture, their manners, their food; everything about Americans is working class. Of course, old Europe remains rather snobby about them, a consolation prize for lost supremacy.
DS: Finally, what about the war against terror?
KM Well, in the end everyone chooses his enemies. It is absurd to think that a capitalist world should not encounter some form of resistance. The communists and socialists offered a rational, modern, sensible opposition. They shared many of the values of their liberal opponents: basic rights, the idea of popular democracy, the emancipation of women, a distaste for organised religion. But once the communists and the socialists were wiped out what do you expect? The triumph of rational thought? Of course not. The political vacuum was filled by fanatical fundamentalists, religious bigots, crazed mullahs. You wipe out the communists in Iran and the Ayatollah comes in. You do the same in Iraq, you get Saddam Hussein. The USSR falls and Osama bin Laden arises.
DS: And you? How do you spend your time?
KM Oh! I have fun. Friedrich and I play on the internet. Did you know that "Karl Marx" scores 367,000 Google hits? And I never miss The Archers, that wonderful saga of the idiocy of rural life. What a hoot!