[OPE-L] Interview with Karl Marx's Ghost (October, 2003)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sat Oct 29 2005 - 13:21:18 EDT

Be careful what you write:  it turns out he's on the Internet.
In solidarity, Jerry

            Interview with Karl Marx    Andreas Ramos
              Oct 31, 2003 21:09 PST

            Karl Marx takes stock

            He erred in forecasting a socialist ascendancy but, as Karl
            Marx tells historian Donald Sassoon in Britain's Prospect
            magazine, his views are still the best means of understanding
            contemporary capitalist society. Sassoon, author of a
            magisterial study of Western socialism, wittily argues through
            the medium of Marx's cranky ghost that his (often
            unacknowledged) influence has in practice surpassed that of all
            of the classical liberal theorists. It is now commonplace in
            decision- and opinion-making circles to interpret events with
            reference to economic interests and antagonistic power
            relations between classes and groups, and to see the state as
            the subordinate creature of the large corporations. Marx's
            theoretical failure, which doesn't obscure the power of his
            analysis of capitalist society, was to assume that the system
            had already exhausted its potential by Victorian times. In
            fact, it outlasted the mass socialist movement and, as Sassoon
            suggests, it is one of the great ironies of history that the
            Marxist-led revolutions of the 20th century appear in
            retrospect mostly to have paved the way for the further
            development of capitalism in Russia, China, and other parts of
            the globe.

            Karl Marx
            By Donald Sassoon
            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

            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

            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 underbrained Downing Street spinners can
            come up with.

            DS But the idea that today's workers have nothing to lose is

            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 Schmanifesto! 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

            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 roués, 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

            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
            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
            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 S cience 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, Schröder, 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
            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!

      © 2001 Topica Inc. TFMB

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