Food For Thought

Imaginary Interview with Karl Marx

Donald Sassoon

[The following is an imaginary interview with Karl Marx by Donald Sassoon]

Donald Sassoon (DS): 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 (KM): 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?

DS: Clinton.

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 under-brained 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 ScheiàŸmanifesto! 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.

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Vol. 54, No. 21, Nov 21 - 27, 2021