Marx Comes First, And Looses
So, Marx has come first yet again. Marx has been voted ‘The Greatest Ever Philosopher’ for a BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, following an online poll taken over five weeks. The show, one of the most respected intellectual shows on radio, offered the public an open vote on the 10 greatest philosophers. Marx polled 28% of the vote, easily outstripping second-placed David Hume with 13%, followed by Wittgenstein (7%) and then Nietzsche (6.5%). This has clearly excited a lot of people on The Left, with commentators being trawled out to bear witness to Marx’s relevance, his insights into globalisation, or why philosophy should take Marx seriously. In all cases an air of jubilation presides: what better proof of his importance, that Marx wins the BBC poll for the greatest philosopher.
It is worth recalling that Marx had previously won a major BBC poll from a few years earlier, when he came first in the ‘greatest thinker of the millennium’ poll at the end of 1999, beating Einstein, Darwin, Newton as well as the range of philosophers beaten in 2005.
So, the audience of the intellectual channel of the state broadcasting system of the Iron Heel’s junior partner votes for the writer most associated with the vision of human existence beyond class society. And it does so twice within the space of a few years. What makes this such a strange result is that anyone who at all knows Marx’s work must be aware of his view that philosophy suffers from a serious practical-political limit, rooted in the philosopher’s aim to interpret the world in various ways, when of course the point is to change it. So, stranger still, here is the most famous non-philosopher, a political anti-philosopher, being peddled as the most popular philosopher of all. The more you think about this the stranger it becomes. Rather than jubilation, then, we might better see this in terms of The Cunning of Unreason.
To understand what the poll may have been about is to raise a set of questions: What kind of game were these contestants involved in? What criteria could be relevant to ranking them? What common quality did they share such that it could be asked what quantity of it they each possessed?
The members of this top ten are strange enough: Socrates and Plato; but Marx and no Engels. Kant was there, but not Hegel, Nietzsche but not Heidegger. There was no space for, say, Adam Smith or Max Weber, despite the fact that both have as much and as little claim to be a philosopher as Marx. But leaving aside these oddities, the voting distribution is uncanny. Without Marx the standard deviation of the voting proportions is 2.6; with him it is just over 7. A generous thought might be that this was a collective will to satirise the concentration of capital. But no; the will to irony has not reached this level of seriousness. But do we seriously think that – even allowing for the voters not been a random sample of the UK’s population – anything remotely like that number of its citizens are communists? Since the answer to this is – sadly – ‘no’, some other explanation must be sought. So, what was Marx winning about?
Those entering the website were invited to vote for who they ‘fancied’. No reason was necessary to vote for x or y, just a fancy. This was a form of voting which makes debates during General Elections look sophisticated. At least voting at General Elections has the semblance of argument, of reason. This was closer to a vote for one of the contestants on Big Brother rather than a vote for a thinker. And of course, the culture of celebrity means that we had to know who certain C-list celebrities rooted for. ‘Pythonesque’, like ‘surreal’, is a near exhausted word. But what else captures the bizarre and ridiculous contest which saw Anne Robinson pimping for Nietzsche, Terry Wogan for Marcus Aurelius, and Stephen Fry for Plato?
The easy option here would be to call this a part of the ‘dumbing down’, an indication of how low our intellectual culture has become. But actually what was taking place was in fact very much a form of ‘philosophizing’ of a very special kind: Marx was turned into a philosopher rather than a communist. Thus at every possible turn Marx’s political project was ignored or marginalised.
This is evident from the discussion on In Our Time after Marx’s ‘victory’. Gareth Stedman Jones, Francis Wheen and A. C. Grayling appeared to discuss the great philosopher’s work. But it was discussed in entirely unpolitical terms. Thus to explain why Marx spent years thinking through the idea of alienation, it was commented that Marx was born a Jew, but that his father had to convert to Lutheran Christianity in order to get a job, so Marx was a minority within a minority and consequently alienated, estranged, from childhood onwards. Alienation was thus important to Marx because he suffered from identity problems: this was pseudo-identity politics masquerading as philosophy, which in turn was masking any real politics. This was a neat appearance of The Cunning of Unreason.
This Cunning twists everything it takes from Marx into its opposite: dialectics was presented in the standard cartoonish way, as thesis/antithesis/synthesis. It would be difficult to parody a situation where a notion which appears in a writer only by way of ridiculing it (in The Poverty of Philosophy on Proudhon) is then attributed to him in a discussion on why he was voted the greatest philosopher.
The advocacy of Marx on the program degraded Marx into just a more prescient Keynes, someone who predicted globalisation, and so on and so on. What was screened out of attention was the critical distance on class-society which was the central focus of Marx’s project. Thus what was never touched on in the program was Marx’s central concern, that wage-labour is a species of the genus of forced labour – in the same category as slavery and serfdom – and that this is a distortion of the human essence. This central concern was instead swamped in a deluge of trivia:
Bragg to Wheen: ‘His education was influenced by Baron von Westphalen … can you tell us about this?’
Wheen: ‘Well yes he was a liberal and an Enlightenment figure, and Marx’s sister said he was never happier than when having Homer read to him. The Baron’s daughter than became Mrs Marx.’.
The way the debate took shape perhaps tells us much about this competition as a whole. For the point of the debate was not Marx’s work, but the cultural status of Marx as an icon. Thus it was crucial that the substantive political force of Marx’s arguments be swamped by trivia and philosophy at every possible point. It was Marx as a cultural icon, rather than Marx as a communist, that people were voting for. And for this to work the cultural icon has to be as far removed from the communist thinker as possible. Thus the Marx at stake was a ‘Marx’ which has become falsely and negatively associated with some the major traditions and assumptions on The Left, which Marx actually argued against. To have Marx as one’s ‘fancied philosopher’ is to make a statement of the same kind as ‘I am a caring person who is against globalisation, who believes in equality, and who believes that, while we cannot do away with capitalism, some things should be protected from the awful forces of the market’. Smith and Weber – symptomatic absences in any list of important social theorists – do not have this iconicity.
The vote for Marx was thus another way of ‘branding’ the self, a leftish self which can only associate with Marx once an alternative Marx has taken over – a Marx falsely associated with things that many on the left value but which are in fact not part of Marxism at all. In this context it is notable that many a commentator suggested that Marx could produce some excellent ‘sound bites’ (as though one should judge philosophers according to their sound bites) – ‘religion is the opium of the people’, ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs’ and, yes, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it’. But we were almost never told why Marx thought these things or, more importantly, how they figured in his critique of capital. So the idea that religion is the opium of the people was never allowed to be connected to his understanding of the ‘soulless conditions’ of the market in human labour. Similarly, the image of communism that lay behind the principle of ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, was lost. The purpose of highlighting Marx’s ‘sound bites’ was thus to bury their real political meaning. Note, in this context, the survey in 1994 in which it was revealed that half of the Americans surveyed thought that ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs’ was part of the US constitution. Vote for Marx, vote for America.
It is significant that Francis Wheen’s main defence of Marx is that his insights are now accepted by leading theorists of the American business-class as showing some of the irrationalities of capitalism. What is remarkable about this defence is that it systematically misses, screens-out, the insight that the wage-labour/capital relation is essentially exploitative. This is an echo of the way in which the Labour Movement has assimilated Marxist insights more generally. Many of the leading figures in British Labourism have cited The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as one of their leading influences. This book is remarkable because of the central place in it of ‘The Great Money Trick’ – a brilliant dramatisation of the nature of wage-labour. Yet its demonstration of the exploitation at the core of capitalism is an insight utterly opposed to the politics of Labourism. The book achieved its status through the screening-out of this core, in favour of its contingent descriptions of working-class life (just the sort of thing which Stedman Jones has spent his career writing about.) The ‘Marx’ which won this poll was a figure which was likewise cleansed of its revolutionary implications.
In this sense, Marx did not win this poll at all. It was won by ‘Marx’. It was a shadow Marx, a spectral Marx, who was voted the ‘Greatest Philosopher of All Time’. The Marx who won this poll was an alternate being, a spectral being which exists in the ideological world, a figure in the phantasmagoria constructed by those who benefit most from having others buy this particular icon. ‘Marx’ won, and so Marx – and thus Marxism – lost.
Books, and thus their writers, are a crucial part of the political terrain. This is why the question of literature is so important to literary utopias and dystopias. Orwell feared the banning of books. But Huxley feared that there would be no need to ban them. We are now in Huxleyland. Right here, right now, it doesn’t matter to the ruling class that the Manifesto of the Communist Party sells tens of thousands of copies a year. And in the same way – despite a few protestations from the conservative press – it doesn’t really matter to the ruling class that Marx won this poll. Far from celebrating this as a victory, then, we should see it as a defeat. For the key to Marx winning is that the imperative of official intellectual culture is … that wonderful sound-bite: All that is solid melts into air. There must always be the shamshow of opposition, of a criticism which never takes to arms.
David Murray and Mark Neocleous
A shorter version of this is in Radical Philosophy, No 134, November – December, 2005