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‘Genius of the modern world’ or hackery at the BBC?


Karl Marx in 1861

Karl Marx in 1861

A new BBC Channel Four series on Genius of the modern world was launched on Thursday 16th June. The series is  to deal with Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – one 60 minute programme for each. The presenter of the programmes is historian Bettany Hughes (BH). In the opening passages BH says that her three geniuses “still shape how we make sense of our lives today”. This first programme is on Marx. (Programme transcript.)

Before getting into any detail we encounter the first warning notice: “Marxist ideology claimed to be liberating but led to dreadful suffering and brought superpowers to the brink of Armageddon”. This is already enough to make the viewer think that if Marx was a genius he was probably one of the mad variety.

After a little background about Marx’s family and early life we reach the point where he goes to Berlin university where, it is said, he fell under the spell of the recently deceased philosopher G. W. Hegel.

The end of history

The first interviewee (Dr Hannah Dawson), speaking of the atmosphere of the time, tells us

Berlin is awash with Hegelian ideas but perhaps the most important idea of Hegel’s that they are completely captivated by is the idea of history as this gradual unfolding of freedom and of reason.

This idea of history as an end directed (teleological) process, and Marx’s commitment to it is repeated through the programme. The metaphor of “unfolding” implies that the result was already contained in the origin of the process that led to it. This is about as far as one can get from Marx’s understanding of history as the working out and resolution of real world conflicts.

This confuses the idea that a process might end up with a given result, even a predictable one, and the idea that its journey was driven by the need to reach that result. A ball which is thrown at a given velocity and angle to the ground will, under normal conditions land at a given place. This does not mean that the secret of its trajectory lies in understanding how it was drawn to that place and any physics teacher who claimed that would not last long in the job. To which one should add that Marx was well aware that possible pathways of social development are vastly more complex than that of a ball in flight (see this letter of 1877 in which he protests at attempts to turn his “historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe” into a “historico-philosophical theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations”.))

Dr Dawson reinforces her teleological interpretation: “Marx does absolutely see himself as kind of standing, as it were, towards the end of history that had begun with the ancient philosophers”. She could not be further from Marx’s own stated position that Communism would be the beginning of real human history since from that point people would be in conscious control of their destinies rather than the subject of blind forces of social and economic development which appear to them like a force of nature.

Critique of Enlightenment materialism

This unscholarly approach even goes so far as to criticise Marx through nameless critics e.g. “Although some did say he was vindictive and an intellectual bully”. We are not told who said such things or anything about their possible basis and reliability. Comment on Marx is open, by this means, to free-fire prejudice.

BH tells us that after a period of journalism Marx spent a year in Paris engaged in “frenetic writing” during the course of which his “agitating philosophy” took shape. It would be impossible to guess from this that Marx’s efforts at this time took the form of a critique of current philosophy with the aim of developing a clear basis for the scientific study of society. Marx’s critique of current philosophy was particularly biting.

At the root of Marxism is the rejection of philosophical idealism. But the subtlety of this rejection was that it recognised that idealism did not spring from somewhere outside the real material world (as in its own self image) and that therefore it was itself a reflection, albeit a distorted one of that world. Marx therefore understood that real discoveries could be made from an idealist standpoint but that for their true meaning to be revealed a thorough materialist critique of the idealist approach would be necessary.

At the same time Marx clearly laid down in this period his critique of existing materialism which he said only understood knowledge as passive reflection. He insisted that knowledge is gained through joint social action on the world. He thereby brought together the active side of knowledge developed by idealists like Hegel and the view that knowledge arises from real world experience of the materialists. These insights were at the root of Marx’s approach to society and it is safe to say that there was not the slightest hint of any of this in BH’s account of the genius of Marx.

Marx and the human essence

Nor was there any mention that the chief result of this period of Marx’s development was an understanding of the social nature of human nature (our humanity is not a given but something we create through our social activities). Secondly, and connected with that idea, Marx came to see history as the creation and development  of  the social relations needed to reproduce our existence on the basis of the existing relations of production. Of this development, later called historical materialism, there is not the slightest hint in BH’s account.

There is discussion with Professor Jonathan Wolfe about the term “species being” in Marx’s early writing in which he argues that involvement in capitalist production involves an “alienation from our species-essence”.

This idea of a given essence of man which is in conflict with capitalist production is the very opposite of the conclusion that Marx reached at this period. He gave up all idea of an innate human nature and came to see what was essential to our humanity was what we became in the context of the social relations through which we create and maintain our existence. As Marx put it in 1846: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations”. This radical thesis of an ex-centred essence is still hardly appreciated by Marx commentary (hostile or friendly).

BH says of Marx that “… he resolved to end degrading injustice and to reunite people with their true innate being” but this is the direct opposite of what he actually believed. It is therefore no surprise when she goes on to describe his “mission” as “philosophical” rather than that of creating the basis for social science.

Alienation and Marx’s “boils”

It is then also no surprise that we are treated to the crassest sort of materialist reductionism in a discussion of Marx’s skin problem (which plagued him throughout his life). The nameless commentators are once more invoked to say “Some have suggested that this condition would’ve added to Marx’s sense of alienation”. So part of Marx’s problem with capitalism, on this view, might be down to his “boils”.

Having so thoroughly misrepresented Marx’s development of his central ideas not much can be expected of the rest of the programme and not much is delivered apart from tendentious and ill-informed commentary.

The urbane Engels is contrasted with the “thesis-bound Marx”. We hear of Marx’s “fevered writing” and “boozy conversations”. Marx, we are led to believe, thought that Communism would be the “final stage of history” whereas Marx said it would be the end of the prehistory and the beginning of real history in which humans learn to take charge of the social forces they create.

The German Ideology as a “blueprint”

The programme builds a picture of Marx as a man driven by an illusory key to human history, an intellectual bully and all-round cad whose fevered writings predicted the end of history as an “unfolding” of what it contained from the start. On the personal side his “all-consuming theorising and political agitating dragged his family down” and he fathered an illegitimate child. In other words they would have the impression of a famous bloke who was definitely better not to get to know too closely. This impression is driven home with the stunningly inane comment that “one of the great ironies of Marx’s life” was that he had identified the need for change but then things did change at such an exponentially rapid rate that by the time he’d worked out a coherent solution to society’s problems, the world had already moved on – leaving him behind”.

We are then informed that The German Ideology (written jointly by Marx and Engels) was both a “blueprint for communism” and that it was rejected its authors. Neither is true and the “blueprint” claim is proof that Bettany Hughes has not actually read the book since it explicitly rejects the idea.

Towards the end of the programme professor Terrell Carver explains that Marx “wasn’t a man who had a big idea, one answer, and then that’s what he found everywhere”. This doesn’t did not stop BH from concluding that “as a historian, I just can’t accept that one single idea can solve the complex riddle of the human experience”.

It is difficult to see how, at the end of the programme, the viewer can have any idea of just how Marx’s ideas “still shape how we make sense of our lives today”. The programme was a travesty. It was littered with elementary mistakes, misleading statements, hearsay and personal opinion posing as scholarly reflection. It was the worst sort of intellectual hackery in which it was quite obvious that neither BH nor the programme editors had anything approaching the required level of familiarity with the subject. In the end, and despite the valiant attempts of a couple of the people interviewed, we are left with no clear idea of the guiding thread of Marx’s work nor of his key ideas. When such an influential thinker (whether you agree with him or not) is treated in such a cavalier manner it is time for the BBC to review its approach to its educational responsibilities .


  1. Karl Stewart says:

    Thought-provoking article David, thanks for this.

    I didn’t see the programme, although it does sound interesting in spite of the areas of disagreement you’ve highlighted.

    It’s generally a good thing that programmes like this are made, which inform and spark discussion of ideas etc.

    I haven’t actually read Marx’s work – I’ve tried a few times, but a lot of it is just too heavy going and also, much of it is very much topical to its own time (the Franco-Prussian War etc).

    But certainly the theories of class struggle are massively important and Marx was the person who put this into solid theoretical form, which has to be his major contribution.

    However, the idea that advancing from capitalism to socialism and then on to communism was clearly disproved by the overthrow of the USSR and his theory of inevitability was clearly proven wrong there.

    Capitalism has shown itself to be a lot more resilient as an economic system than he

    And the class struggle, which he was the first one to seriously analyse and theorise, has proved to be a permanent feature of life, rather than the means to an end that he saw it as.

    Anyway, thanks again for the thought-provoking and interesting article David.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I really can’t see how programmes which are wildly inaccurate, which make claims which are demonstrably incorrect on fundamental points and which add utterly trivial commentary to show how irrelevant the ideas of the person treated are to our times having predicated the programme on the opposite, can be considered to be a good thing.

      Imagine a programme about Newton in which the presenter clearly did not understand his laws of motion, the concept of momentum, or the universal law of gravitation. Imagine further that the presenter asserted that Newton failed to understand that his friction-free idealisation of mechanical motion failed to understand that in the real world motion always involves friction. I would regard such programme as a travesty and definitely not a good thing. That is how I feel about the Marx programme. It is just another marker in the long history of ill-informed Marx criticism and in my view is definitely not a good thing.

  2. Jim Denham says:

    Yes, an interesting and though-provoking piece: thanks, David. The debate about Marx’s attitude to “human nature” and whether or not there was a “epistemological break” in his thought, is an old an unresolved one. Rather to my surprise, I find myself broadly in agreement with Sean Sayers and this review:

    Btw: I still thought the TV programme was worthwhile, despite its evident shortcomings.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I think that the review you link is very confused. The writer says

      Marx argued that any analysis of human nature “would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch”.

      This is a classic “Marxist” howler which I guess the reviewer has picked up from Norman Geras. In fact the passage in which Marx says this is one in which he is sarcastically paraphrasing Jeremy Bentham (“that insipid, pedantic, leathery-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence”).

      The approach described is one heavily criticised by Marx in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (not the preface).

      Sayers is critical of Geras’ approach although not as clearly as I would have liked.

      I think that the issue of the “epistemological break” has been resolved by such writers as Lucien Seve in his Man in Marxist Theory. Strange how Sean Sayers makes no reference to this or other works which carefully picked apart the excessive rigidity of the idea of the epistemological break. The world of academic Marxism appears to move in its own narrow channels and is happy to ignore such important work.

      I don’t see how such a poor and distorting programme can be considered worthwhile.

  3. Curlew says:

    Well said David Pavett. I thought it was rambling and incoherent, almost scared to speak the truth.

  4. If you think Marx got a hard time, await the other two programmes with dread. The standard of TV broadcasting is now at an all time low. Channel 4 last month ran a documentary on the excavation of Shakespeare’s tomb with ground penetrating radar which found nothing so went after finding his allegedly stolen skull. After 20 minutes it admitted the skull it was looking at was female, so unlikely to be Will Shakespeare.

    But the prize has to go to the C4 documentary on whether Unity Mitford, Hitler’s friend from the BRitish aristocracy, was pregnant by Hitler when she shot herself on the outbreak of war – and was sent by Hitler to Switzerland to be brought back to England. After 45 minutes the programme admitted there was no evidence that Mitford had was pregnant, even though she had an SS boyfriend. But the combination of sex, Hitler and an aristocratic woman got 45 minutes of expensive TV time for the then deputy editor of the NEw Statesman.

    Its perhaps a sign of the times that the US still has solid investigative series and I recommend Crimes of the Rich and Famous

    Trevor FIsher.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I suspect that you a right and that we can expect similarly awful treatment of the next subjects of the series.

      I would be quite happy for Marx to be given a hard time if it was by someone who had made a serious effort to understand his ideas.

  5. John Penney says:

    This programme was firmly entrapped in the BBC’s constant treatment of Marx’s works. I recall a year or so ago Stephanie Flanders, the then BBC economics bod (and now working for some international bank) doing a series on “Great Economists”. Despite her Oxford (or was it Cambridge ? )economics degree it was quite clear in her gross misunderstanding of the basics of Marxist economics that the woman had simply never read Marx in any detail at all, and simply didn’t grasp his economic theories. She seemed to see Marx as a crude “underconsumptionist “akin to Robert Tressell of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” ! Tragically ignorant stuff .

    But good to know that Marxist theory and Marxist socialism is still far too hot to handle accurately by the propaganda arm of the British state.

    I am beyond gobsmacked , Karl Stewart , that you claim never to have read any of Marx’s works ! I can understand that with Capital (pretty incomprehensible beyond volume ! for all but economists) But, not even the (admittedly propagandist and simplistic) seminal world famous “Communist Manifesto “? For someone constantly posting on here as a socialist it is utterly amazing that you have no grounding at all in Marx’s works. Even a radical ,reformist, socialist can have no proper understanding of capitalism or the political historical process without at least a basic understanding of Marx and the Marxist method.

    A theme of the programme, that Marx’s work is weakened by a teleological assumption about the direction of human history, ie towards global socialism, is however I think quite fair. This is particularly evident in the works of Engels – with his dire invention of the complete and utter (Hegel-sourced) mumbo jumbo of “Dialectical Materialism” .

    It is also quite obviously the case that the opening claim of the excellent but highly propagandist “Communist Manifesto” (produced for the International working Men’s Association, not as a careful statement of Marx and Engels political world historic view) , that “All history is the history of class struggle …” is utterly simplistic bunk. It is these over-simplifications within the body of Marx and Engels overall, rich and complex economic and historical/social works that were used by both the reformists of , (the nominally Marxist) German Social Democratic SDP and the Soviet Stalinist usurpers of the 1917 revolution to portray THEMSELVES as the interpreters and custodians of the “special knowledge” and vanguard leadership role provided by “Marxism” of the “inevitable historical process” leading to socialism. Whereas revolutionary Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg used the Marxist method to understand that it is only working people in their millions , in struggle, who can determine the historical outcome of the class conflict implicit in the capitalist system.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Marx made no teleological assumptions about the direction of human history (unless, that is, you think that physicists make teleological assumptions about the trajectory of projectiles). He explicitly rejected the idea that he had provided a “historico-philosophical theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations”. I have added a note and a link on this to my piece.

      Engels had his faults but they did not include the idea that Marx’s analysis was one for which he strove to make his categories both materialist and dialectical. It would be really difficult to understand Marx’s writing if this were not the case and he is often very explicit about it. Engels did not have Marx’s philosophical acuity and he wrote some things which have deservedly been criticised but it would be a big mistake to reject the idea that for Marx materialism had to move beyond the Enlightenment phase through a critical reworking of Hegel’s dialectics. Or put the other way round Marx believed that what was of value in Hegel dialectics could only be rescued through a thoroughgoing materialist critique. A recent French publication has traced these points out in detail with selections from Marx showing his philosophical development throughout his life (Écrits philosophiques de Karl Marx, edited by Lucien Sève, 2011, Flammarion). There is indeed much nonsense that has been written under the heading of dialectical materialism (as with any other approach) but please don’t assume that is the whole story. Reading a book like the recently published Dialectic of the Ideal: Evald Ilyenkov and Creative Soviet Marxism should convince you otherwise. It was a tragedy that quality philosophers like Ilyenkov were held at arms length by the Soviet authorities and have been largely buried in the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union.

      1. John Penney says:

        I challenge you to re-read the Communist Manifesto, David. I accept absolutely that this is not really a true reflection of the mature, nuanced, views of Marx in particular – being produced as a propaganda work. But it is THE seminal work nevertheless that most workers worldwide interested in socialism have read – and seen as the core of Marxism – and providing a core text for the soviet stalinist bureaucracy’s gross distortion of Marxism. The Communist Manifesto is saturated in ” historical developmental inevitabilism” , and the underlying concept that the entire historical role of Bourgeois capitalism is to boost the productivity of society, and create its ” inevitable gravediggers” the modern proletariat, so as to lay the foundation for the new socialist order.

        This ahistorical concept of inevitability, saturates the political philosophy of the German SPD – interlinked with Engels unfortunate re-manufacture from Hegel’s idealisdt philosophy of the concept of “Dialectical Materialism” (which Marx NEVER refers to anywhere, and never employs) , to spuriously connect the processes of social development with the innate processes of physics and biology. We can debate this endlessly (indeed I noticed that the online journal of the tiny CPGB grouplet Weekly Worker, was debating it very recently !) But I consider the entire basis and form of Dialectical Materialism to be spurious philosophical junk (but then I’m totally biased – I wrote my MA thesis on just that topic) , and best forgotten – along with the Hegelian Dialectic (which I had to study in painfully high level individual tutorials from a renowned Hegelian academic philosopher, Plant. I think the experience forever strained my brain !)

        1. David Pavett says:

          You say “The Communist Manifesto is saturated in ‘historical developmental inevitabilism'”

          (1) Is it? The word “inevitable” turns up just three times only only once in the sense of an inevitable outcome of a historical process. Even then it could be read as a comment on the logical necessity of one outcome entailing another: the fall of the bourgeoisie and the rise of the proletariat are “equally inevitable”.

          (2) As for “developmental inevitabilism” the document contains and explicit rejection of the idea that all societies must pass along the same path (Marx speculates on the possibility of the bourgeois phase being avoided in Russia).

          (3) Inevitable does not imply teleological as I tried to explain with my example from physics.

          (4) Marx learned from Hegel that there was a dialectical connection between chance and necessity (necessity manifests itself through a series of chance events). There Marx’s idea of necessary development was one of material tendencies as opposed to teleology in which processes are aimed from the start and guided by the final result.

          Do you disagree that if a path beyond capitalism is possible it is so on the basis of the people and the means provided by capitalism? I see nothing of some suspicious inevitabilism or teleology in that. It says no more than that in the evolution of complex systems latter stages take off from what is provided by earlier stages. Capitalism, in Marx’s view, develops the conditions needed for socialism. That does not mean that it was the purpose of capitalism to do that any more than it is the purpose of the growing of tree leaves in the summer to provide the shade that it inevitably provides.

          As Marx once said “history does nothing”. So when later Marxists comforted themselves with the thought that revolution was inevitable because it was required by an impersonal force of history they entirely misunderstood Marx. People make history but, as he also said, they do it in conditions they did not choose.

          I think that a problem here is that Marx was treated as sacred text for so long that he suffered the distortions, omissions and fabrications that is the fate of all sacred texts. Not only that but when a text has been intoned for a long time for devotional purposes it actually becomes very difficult to step back and read what it actually says. We have to make a big effort to stop seeing Marx through his dogmatic advocates and detractors of the 20th century.

          There is nothing unfortunate about the expression “dialectal materialism” although some of the things that Engels said under that heading definitely need critical re-evaluation. Marx unquestionably regarded himself as a materialist and he unquestionably thought that the dialectical analysis of the categories we use to think about the world was vital to clearly the intellectual clutter of the ages out of the way. So why should the term “dialectical materialism” offend?

          You say that Marx nowhere used the expression. My reaction to that is “so what?” Judge by the meaning not the words. He didn’t feel the need to give it a name. On the other hand there are hundreds of passages where he makes his overall approach clear and it is clearly both materialist and dialectical.

          My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ―the Idea,‖ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ―the Idea.‖ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

          In my view this is both materialist and dialectical and is definitely not “junk”.

  6. Peter Rowlands says:

    Karl – read the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy and the first page of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Only two pages, but I’m sure that it will be enough to induce you to go on to more.

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      OK Pete, I’ll get hold of a copy and read it after I’ve finished my current book (just started Conn Iggulden’s latest).

      I have read the “Short Course” abridged version of the basics of Marxism, (which was I think originally a Soviet publication) and a few odd bits and pieces, but not serious study.

  7. rod says:

    You expect too much of the BBC, David.

    The lesson to be taken from this is that if the BBC can’t produce a scholarly and entertaining account of a 19th century thinker then we should not expect the BBC to satisfactorily cover any other subject.

    The BBC’s treatment of Corbyn certainly supports such a conclusion.

  8. Tim Wilkinson says:

    They must have thought that the last hit job, ‘Masters of Money’, presented by Stephanie Flanders shortly before she went off to JPMorgan, was a bit too subtle and understated.

    It’s good to see someone standing up to the latest instalment of a century-old smear campaign against Marx. Doing so is no doubt part of a fuil-spectrum effort to rehabilitate and re-embolden left-wing thought in this country over the longer term.

    It does raise a more general issue for anyone who considers themself heavily influenced by or indebted to Marx.

    I think it’s safe to say that for the majority of the population, mention of Marx is a turn-off, triggering stereotypes from Stalin to Citizen Smith. Trying to repair Marx’s public image – and that of people who are seen as ‘devotees’ of his – is a massive task, and mustn’t be a precondition for building a viable and popular left Labour platform.

    To me that suggests the pragmatic course in public discussion of substantive political issues (rather than, as here, specifically Marx-related topics) is to move beyond a Marxian framing of ideas, and in general keep references to Marx to a minimum. (This certainly doesn’t mean failing to defend Marx from direct attacks, purging all Marxian influences, or self-censoring internal or historical discussion.)

    Since we need to develop a new, contemporary and accessible vocabulary and M/E’s terminology is none of those, this may be a sensible approach in any case.

    It’s been pointed out to me that Jacobin magazine might be a good example of a manages to present ideas which in many cases are recognisably Marxian but without using Marxist vocab or constantly invoking Marx directly. It’s the ideas and what we do with them that we’re interested in, after all.

    1. rod says:

      “move beyond a Marxian framing of ideas”

      That’s a very sound proposal.

      Certainly, if a 19th century resource is needed, and the younger thinkers I meet are any indication, Nietzsche provides a far more useful alternative to the sterile systematisations that characterises the approach of many of today’s Marxists.

  9. Bazza says:

    Hi David and thanks for this and I think your review sounded better than the programme.
    I have read quite a bit of Marx and I think he was brilliant on capitalism but the problem has never been Marx in my view but with some of his adherents.
    I’m with Rosa Luxemburg who seemed to imply that the early socialist leaders in the USSR for example were “bourgeois socialists.”
    From the likes of Lenin to would be leader Trotsky to the vile Stalin they were top down undemocratic, with elite central committees (and secret police etc.) who took the power for themselves and the rest is history.
    But I hold out for a more democratic socialism which is grassroots-led, bottom up, participatory, democratic and peaceful and with leaders who are more of facilitators.
    I am also highly influenced by the radical Latin American adult educator Paulo Freire who talked about working with the grassroots as equals and drawing out together from our experience a picture of power and then working out together how to change things.
    I also liked the work of Laclau and Moufe who basically seemed to argue that we are all products of the positive and negative influences in our lives.
    Of course Labour in the past was paternalist and happy with crumbs for working people and rarely attempted to politicise the masses of people which I would argue this is what we really need and then the democratic forces of progress will then be stronger.
    It is the labour of the working billions which creates the wealth and makes societies work and of course the Right (and some of the rich) cast the Left has having “the politics of envy” when of course it is the politics of economic justice and we want our share of the wealth back!
    So we can learn much from Marx about capitalism but I admire Rosa Luxemburg more for one reason; Rosa argued that the best thing we can all bring to the table is our independent critical thinking.
    One final thought – I was surprised at Marx and Engels coming up with the term “Communism” (with its potential negative connotations) with their talents for journalistic flair and I think “Community-ism” may have been much better.
    Yours in peace.

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      I agree with your general thrust of taking the best and most useful front he various different thinkers and philosophers, rather than this blind-faith that some have in the ‘one true path’ – totally agree.

      Just one thing though, communism didn’t have negative connotations back when Marx and Engels came up with the term (late 19th century) – it was at that time the word used to describe the fighters for the Paris Commune.

      The ‘stalinist’ and cold war periods were when the term was given negative connotations, which was much, much later (mid 20th century).

      1. Bazza says:

        Good point Karl and thanks for that which I now adjust my thinking to agree with.

      2. David Pavett says:

        Just one thing though, communism didn’t have negative connotations back when Marx and Engels came up with the term

        Marx and Engels reasoning was rather different to what you suggest.

        Socialism was, in 1847, a middle-class movement, Communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, “respectable”; Communism was he very opposite.

    2. David Pavett says:

      Marx realised that in order to analyse capitalism he needed to probe its natural self-image with its attendant categories and concepts. To do this he needed to make a critique of those categories and concepts. How were they formed, why did they come to mind, why do they seem so natural as to have the force of the obvious? That for me is Marx’s most characteristic approach. So whether the discussion is about nature, nationalism, production or personality it is still a matter of a critique of categories and concepts which, far more systematically than even Kant could dream, of probes the social source and implications of our thought processes. Objectivity is approached by a deep critique of the subjective apparatus we use to analyse it.

      This process of critique which allows no dogma and no unquestioned assumptions is the root of both Marx’s materialism and of the dialectical critique of categories that he found necessary to develop that materialism. I think that there is lot more to Marx than learning “about capitalism”.

      So when you say “he was brilliant on capitalism” I wonder if you are giving sufficient scope to the new pathways of understanding that he opened up. For example Lucien Seve has shown that his concept of the human essence is the basis for extremely rich developments in psychology. And we already have some important indications of what is possible in the work of the Vygotsky school.

      No doubt, as you say, that Marx has not been well served by most of those claiming to be guided by his ideas, and certainly not by those lined up to condemn him. Seeing the real Marx through all that is still a massive task. I also agree that the top-down style that had developed towards the end of the 1920s served the cause of revolutionary social change very badly indeed.

      I am also completely in agreement about the need for a socialist movement to be fully democratic. I am not so sure that this means “grassroots-led”. When I taught computer science I never like the top-down approach being set in opposition to the bottom-up approach because most intelligent design involves both. It is the same with any organisation worthy of the name. Leaders should lead otherwise why are they there? But they should do so in a way that the organisation doesn’t end up serving their interests as has traditionally been the case in the Labour Party. But of course I agree that the whole process should be open, transparent and fully participatory which it sure as hell is not in the Labour Party.

      I don’t agree about Paulo Freire but that will have to be a debate for another time. I found much of his criticism of current practice aimed at things I also oppose but his manner of framing the problem (for example his criticism of what he calls the “banking” approach to education”) hopelessly inadequate. The attempt to blend Marxism and Christianity was never going to be other that an unstable mix.

      I haven’t read Laclau. When I found that he thought that Althusser’s ideas were the epicentre of the creative development of Marxism in the 60/70s and read a few passages about the Husserlian view of “sedemented concepts” I decided that I was not likely to get much from it. If I am given a good reason to read him then I will. Ars longa vita brevis.

      I wonder what you mean by “we want our share of the wealth back”. What is “our share of the wealth” and who does the other share or shares go to?

      Engels explains why he and Marx opted for “communist” rather than “socialist” in the 1888 preface to the Communist Manifesto. Perhaps you will agree that given the diverse and confusing uses to which the word “community” is now put we are lucky that we are not saddled with “community-ism”.

      1. Bazza says:

        But the banking concept of education helps to understand the far left with their ready made programmes.
        All they need to do his fill the heads of the working class/working people with their ready made programme (like Militant used to do) and their elite central committee will lead us all to socialism -a top down socialism FOR rather than a democratic left bottom up socialism WITH.
        I believe you need leaders who are also facilitators of power and I think Jeremy is in tune with this.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Sure, there is a completely idiotic version of the so-called banking concept. But the trouble with Freire is that he doesn’t distinguish clearly between that and the role of teachers a vectors of the accumulated culture of the past. If you want young people to understand sufficient maths to be able to follow quantitative aspects of the news with a critical mind then there is a body of knowledge, know hiw and techniques that is known to the maths teacher and not (initially) to the pupil/student. This knowledge has to be passed on (albeit by a questioning and participative process).

          Freire says “Liberating education consists of acts of cognition, not transferral of information”. This is confused and confusing. Archimedes understood the principle of fluid upthrust in a solid body and how this could be used to calculate density. That is an insight that has been passed on ever since. The role of the physics teacher is to find the best ways of doing that. For that all Freire’s talk of reconciling the dichotomy between teacher and taught so that the teacher becomes a teacher-student and the student becomes a student-teacher enabling them to engage in a dialogue between equals is pretty irrelevant and unhelpful.

          1. Bazza says:

            When I facilitated sessions with HE students we discussed things collectively and they may have got something from my points and I certainly learnt a lot from them.
            I guess we have to disagree David but I agree with Freire’s point that the best teachers can also be the best learners and I would refer back to previous student points in other sessions to have a dialogue and not a monologue but these were in seminars after lectures.
            Karl’s point about the Paris Commune earlier taught me perhaps the most on this topic and I like learning and hopefully enriching my thinking but perhaps a problem on the Left can be that some are so certain.
            But as I sign off I keep thinking about a lovely line from a beautiful country song in the US country charts, “Always be humble and kind.”

          2. David Pavett says:

            That teachers can learn from their students and that they should be interested in what students bring to the learning process I take as a statement of the blindingly obvious. But that does not put teacher and taught on the same level. There is still an objective content to be transmitted. That is all horribly confused in Freire. Maths students learning about differential equations need to leave the class being able to solve equations they could not solve before the class started.

            Freire is well-intentioned but bogged down by his own humanistic waffle. Among other things this prevents him from making a realistic assessment and learning from the best of traditional practice which he only treats in its most crass form. Pity he didn’t know about the Marxist educational theories of the Vygotsky school ir even the work of marxist educational theorists like Brian Simon.

    3. John Penney says:

      Bazza, it has long been viewed by radical socialists, certainly of the “Marxist persuasion” , that the correct response to your quite commonly stated position of :

      “It is the labour of the working billions which creates the wealth and makes societies work and of course the Right (and some of the rich) cast the Left has having “the politics of envy” when of course it is the politics of economic justice and we want our share of the wealth back!”


      “We, the working class shouldn’t want just a larger share of the loaf – we want to collectively own and control the bakery and the means of distribution”.

      1. Bazza says:

        Yes John and your stage which I agree with hopefully will come after mine gets us to where it becomes possible and we then perhaps we consult working humanity on buiding a non-exploitative, greener, and fairer global economic system.
        We can put our two penny’s worth in and perhaps designing this together could be quite exciting.
        Glad to see you haven’t changed from your Left Unity comments when I nearly gave up on Labour.

        1. C MacMackin says:

          I don’t know to what extent we can do this as a two-stage thing, first getting people the full value of their labour and then afterwards the means of production. Any attempt at the former causes crisis in capitalism, even before it would be completed. This could only be resolved by starting to take ownership of capital (or reverting back to neoliberalism).

          I suspect we’re more arguing about semantics, though.

        2. Bazza says:

          Some on Left Unity in their plan for socialism included more factory workers.
          Funny because I want to smash down factory walls and free human beings from the monotonous drudgery which I don’t have to endure, and much of which has been generally moved to working class/working people in less developed countries for reasons of cheap labour.
          But if we need factory work then perhaps with more socialist vision working people should work there 20 hours a week with very good pay and conditions and perhaps have a variety of tasks offered to those who want it.
          Socialism should be about liberating working humanity and we should all work 20 hours a week to meet our needs.
          Then we can enjoy being with friends, families, do sport, education, arts etc. and in short enjoy more our beautiful planet.
          Perhaps we don’t need a ready made plan but need to be confident enough to be the global facilitators for working people to design their own global economy?

  10. C MacMackin says:

    A much more sympathetic account of Marx was done for Radio 4 a number of years ago by Mark Steel. It’s worth a listen to. (He also did a video version of BBC 4, but it’s painfully low budget.)

    1. David Pavett says:

      I hope the Radio 4 programme you mention was better than the one that went out yesterday (Marxism Today, Radio 4). I could not see how anyone listening to it would, by the end of the programme have a clear view of a single one of Marx’s ideas. They would, however, have picked up a great deal nonsense (e.g. dialectics is about opposing thesis and antithesis, history must go through a fixed sequence before reaching sovialust perfection, “for believing Marxists it [?] Is all about class”, “the expected final cataclysmic crisis of capiltalism hasn’t happened”).

    2. C MacMackin says:

      Well, Mark Steel is a socialist (former SWP member), so it probably is. That said, he is a comedian and, while his programs are meant to be educational, there is no escaping that fact. It gives a basic overview of some of Marx’s simpler ideas (mostly presented through Marx’s biography) and how they can be applied to situations today. Someone more familiar with the works of Marx than I may pick out some simplifications or errors, though.

      1. David Pavett says:

        I thought some of the Mark Steele lectures were good although I don’t remember the Marx one. I remember playing his Aristotle lecture to my A Level Philosophy students. I am sure that whatever he did on Marx it would have been vastly better informed than Bettany Hughes’ contribution.

  11. Karl Stewart says:

    This is an excellent point from Bazza:

    “Karl’s point about the Paris Commune earlier taught me perhaps the most on this topic…”

  12. David Pavett says:

    This discussion seems to have come to an (as far as this thread is concerned). No doubt many of the same points will be taken up again on another occasion. I would like to make a few concluding points as pointers to the next discussion rather than to pretend that the discussion is anything other than open.

    1. My main objective was to complain about the deeply ill-informed nature of Bethany Hughes’ Marx programme on BBC FOUR and about the BBC’s willingness to produce and broadcast such badly researched material about an important social thinker and activist. No one said I had criticised the programme unfairly so I think there was general agreement about this.

    2. Most of the comments about Marx in the thread did not seem to me to from direct engagement with his writings. Tim W said we should “move beyond a Marxian framing of ideas” which presupposes that we have a common understanding of what that framing is. I find it difficult to believe that anyone seriously believes that to be the case. To go beyond the work of any great thinker you have to have a clear idea about that work and what is of enduring value in it as well as what needs to be developped (and what has been developed. Again, I don’t think that anyone can seriously maintain that this thread showed that we are collectively in that position.

    3. The simple fact is that the great majority of left-wing activists in the UK have not engaged seriously with Marx and have only a smattering of second/third hand knowledge of his work. Sometimes that sort of remote contact works. It is possible to understand the key ideas of let us say Archimedes or Newton without every reading a word written by them. Their ideas are well established and relatively non-controversial. Neither of these things is true in the case of Marx.

    4. Bazza said “we can learn much from Marx about capitalism but I admire Rosa Luxemburg more for one reason; Rosa argued that the best thing we can all bring to the table is our independent critical thinking”. This made me wonder just what kind of idea he has of Marx whose whole approach was nothing if not critical. I cannot believe that comments like that, and several other said similar things, arose from real engagement with Marx’s own work.

    5. Another suggestion was “… it’s safe to say that for the majority of the population, mention of Marx is a turn-off, triggering stereotypes from Stalin to Citizen Smith. Trying to repair Marx’s public image … mustn’t be a precondition for building a viable and popular left Labour platform”. This seems to me to be a disastrous concession to the precepts of focus group politics. It is not a question of honouring Marx. Also, the media-created image of such a resolute critic of capitalism is not a safe guide to whether we need to appreciate his analysis or not. The question must surely be the validity or otherwise of his ideas. If they are largely valid then it would simply be crazy (or lazy) to imagine that a movement critical of capitalism can afford to put the study of those ideas to some unspecified later date. The disdain for theory has always been Labour’s achilles heel and that is no less true of Labour’s left.

    6. Finally, a word on Engels. Engels and Marx were not identical but they were co-workers who who fed a lot off each other as is clear from their correspondance. Engels acknowledged his role as second fiddle but that was second to a very mighty first. There is much too be discussed about Engels’ work after the death of Marx but it should be noted that much of the work in which he was alleged to have advocated ideas antithetical to those of Marx were read and approved of by him. I don’t think that we yet have in English a reliable critical discussion of the Engels/Marx relationship. There is a good discussion in French in a recent book on philosophy by Lucien Seve (“La Philosophie”?, Dispute, 2014). I am so fed up with the nonsense that passes for Engels criticism in UK academic circles that I think I am going to try to set the time aside to translate this large book. In the meantime, if you read French and you are interested in Marx then I think this book is essential reading.

    Thanks to everyone who took part in the discussion. I hope there will be more on just what Marx’s contribution was.

    1. as I have said before on this site, if you don’t like what the BBC does, complain to the BBC. As with Lansman’s radio 4 interview, the Beeb itself gets away with seriously bad practices and is not challenged.

      I have a thick file of complaints I have made over the years and know perfectly well that the Beeb is judge and jury in its own defence and nothing will be admitted- but changing that situation is a priority, and it will not happen if those who complain do so by talking only to the already converted

      Trevor FIsher

      1. David Pavett says:

        Trevor, I intend to send a detailed complaint to the BBC as soon as I have a moment. I will give much more detail that was possible in the above article. However, let’s be realistic, I don’t expect it to have any impact, any more than your thick file of complaints, because the BBC producers of such materials live on another political plant. I think that it is much more important that we discuss these things among ourselves to sort out our own thinking. That is much more important to me than trying to convince some BBC producer.

        1. dear david,

          Its not either or, do both. But we have to change the Beeb as the left is irrelevant – as the EU referendum has shown, we do not mean anything to the mass of ordinary people.

          Radio 4 last PISA results day (2013) ran an expert programme which showed the tables to be meaningless. Today then took them as gospel. TOday has 10m listeners, the specialist programmes are listened to by the already converted. Its not just a left problem though the left ignores it. Any expertise is dismissed

          As Gove just said, don’t listen to experts like Soros on the EU, vote to destroy it. And the Beeb is a major factor in promoting this culture of ignorance.

          They are very happy for an irrelevant left to talk among itself. So lets get to the public. By changing the BBC

          Trevor Fisher

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