19 July 2005

Marx, still relevant


When I was living in England, I had a roommate — also an American — who I can best describe by saying that in all the time she lived there, she never managed to visit Greenwich, located a 10-minute walk away. When her boyfriend came to visit, he asked what he should go see in London. One place I mentioned was the British Museum, and I suggested that he not rush past the Library collection, and if he could somehow wrangle a ticket, should definitely take a look at the Reading Room. Besides the architecture, I said, it's famed as the place where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. He snorted, and said, "Well, I won't be bothering with that, then." I argued that, agree or disagree with Marx, it was hard to dispute his significance, but he was having none of it.

Recently, though, Marx was voted the "greatest philosopher" ever by listeners of Radio 4 in the UK. And the Guardian wrote:
Like Molière'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 (1997).

'Everybody I know now believes that their attitudes are to an extent a creation of their material circumstances,' he wrote, 'and that changes in the ways things are produced profoundly affect the affairs of humanity even outside the workshop or factory. It is largely through Marx, rather than political economy, that those notions have come down to us.'

Even the Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, eager cheerleaders for turbo-capitalism, acknowledge the debt. 'As a prophet of socialism Marx may be kaput,' they wrote in A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation (2000), 'but as a prophet of the "universal interdependence of nations" as he called globalisation, he can still seem startlingly relevant.' Their greatest fear was that 'the more successful globalisation becomes the more it seems to whip up its own backlash' - or, as Marx himself said, that modern industry produces its own gravediggers.
I have to confess that I've read no Marx, and my knowledge of his theories is limited to a perusal of "Marx for beginners" and whatever I've absorbed from other readings. But I think I'll start reading him.