What Does It Take to Kill an Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

By John Thornhill

We reprint this article reflecting the antisocialist views of one of British capitalism’s most prestigious daily newspapers, The Financial Times, because, as the reader will see, it is a manifestation of the capitalist world’s rising fear of the power of revolutionary Marxism—despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pro-capitalist trajectory of the other “socialist” countries, with the notable exception of revolutionary Cuba.

—The Editors

One would have thought that several decades of experimentation with communism would have convinced most observers that it was a murderous and economically sub-optimal creed. Even its most fervent supporters could scarcely contest the view that it has spectacularly failed to live up to its creators’ utopian expectations.

According to the Black Book of Communism, published in 1997 by a group of French scholars, communist regimes were responsible for the “class genocide” of almost 100m people during the 20th century. Apologists for Joseph Stalin used to justify such brutality by arguing that you could not make an omelet without breaking eggs. But, as George Orwell once famously responded: where’s the omelet?

Leszek Kolakowski, one of the world’s foremost students—and critics—of Marxism, thought he had buried the communist idea as long ago as 1974. “The only medicine communism has invented—the centralized, beyond social control, state ownership of the national wealth and one-party rule—is worse than the illness it is supposed to cure,” he wrote in a damning open letter published in the Socialist Register. Arguing that the communist idea could never be successfully modified or revived, he concluded: “This skull will never smile again.”

His view seemed to be vindicated when China reverted to capitalism in the 1980s as the best means of promoting prosperity and the Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991. The Communist diehards in impoverished Pyongyang and Havana who survive today are hardly the brightest advertisements for the vitality of the Marxist faith.

Yet, it seems, the edges of Karl Marx’s lips are beginning to twitch again in Europe as fresh attempts are made to reanimate his ideas. Marx should not be held accountable for those who acted on his (often contradictory) analysis, his latter-day supporters claim. Besides, it is wrong to equate Marxist theory with communist practice. As Marx himself declared, he was not a Marxist. It would be as unfair to blame Marx for the excesses committed in his name, they claim, as it would be to condemn Jesus for the evils of the Spanish inquisition.

The latest surge of globalization, which is in so many ways reminiscent of the era in which Marx lived, has undoubtedly led to renewed interest in his critique of capitalism. Globalization may be lifting millions of people out of absolute poverty, but it has also led to startling divergences in relative wealth. How can it be, as a United Nations report recently estimated, that the richest 2 percent of the world’s adult population own more than 50 percent of global assets while the poorest 50 percent own only 1 percent? How can one understand capital without Das Kapital?

“Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century,” Francis Wheen, his British biographer, concludes in a recent essay on Das Kapital.

The eloquent Mr. Wheen even helped to persuade BBC listeners that Marx was the most important philosopher of all time in a radio poll conducted last year.

Across the Channel, Marx has never really gone out of fashion—even if Marxist ideas have become an internalized rhetorical reflex among politicians more than a meaningful program for action.

François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist UDF party, argues that the French left has never been properly de-Marxized. Just look at the 2002 presidential elections in which two rival Trotskyist candidates, the head of the Communist party of France, and the leader of the Revolutionary Communist League won 17 percent of the vote between them in the first round.

Much of the rhetoric from mainstream French politicians ahead of next year’s presidential elections has a decidedly Marxist ring to it.

Ségolène Royal, the presidential candidate of the opposition Socialist party, constantly talks about the need to rebalance capital and labor declaring it is her intention to “frighten the capitalists.” Even Nicolas Sarkozy, the presidential contender from the ostensibly centre-right ruling UMP party, rails against “rogue bosses” who pay themselves obscene bonuses while shifting jobs offshore.

One prominent socialist politician says that the new class divide in France and elsewhere in the developed world is between the rich—including most French people—and the super-rich.

This new globalized “aristocracy” of financiers, industrialists and policymakers now spans the globe preaching “market fundamentalism.” Its members have more allegiances to each other than to any nation state. While telling their employees that job insecurity, reduced welfare benefits and lower salaries are the condition of the modern world, they don golden parachutes to protect themselves from failure.

Jacques Attali, the polymath French financier, has also been busily buffing up Marx’s reputation as a prophet of our globalized times. In a recent biography of Marx, Mr. Attali argues that the 19th century philosopher still has much to teach us about the nature of capitalism, the shocks that modernization inflicts on traditional societies, the rise of competitive individualism and the spread of insecurity.

According to Mr. Attali, Marx answers questions that are only now being asked. It is only in our days that we can see Marx in his true light, unencumbered by his association with the experience of communism.

However, Marx would surely have been grumpy about his new-found status as an analyst of our times rather than as an agitator for revolutionary change. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it,” he wrote.

The skull may not be smiling so much as frowning.

—The Financial Times (UK), December 28, 2006