10/01/90 - The Financial Times

There was a knock on the door.

‘Come in,’ I called. It was the moment for which I had been waiting. He was slightly shorter than I had expected but no less imposing, with long hair, now mainly grey, and a beard. His complexion was rather darker than I imagined. Of course, I thought: ‘The old Moor.’ I offered him a seat, thanking him for making time for the interview. He shrugged his shoulders, looked at the tape recorder with some puzzlement, and waited for me to begin.

‘Mr Marx, you wrote in the Communist Manifesto, on the eve of the 1848 revolution, that: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.’ The spectre haunting Europe now looks more like capitalism.’

I began to explain what had happened in 1989, but he interrupted with some impatience. ‘I know, I know. I have been following events, I don’t sleep while I am in the Reading Room.’ Of course, I thought, seat G7. As he seemed well up with the news I hastily revised my interview.

‘What do you think of 1989. Is it the end of communism?’

‘Fascinating. A remarkable year. In some respects it is like 1848. An irresistible popular movement in so many countries all at the same time. But this time the revolutions will probably survive. They are revolutions for democracy. I think 1989 is the end of 1917. It is the end of the era of the Russian Revolution. I am afraid it has failed.’

I was taken aback by his willingness to jettison so much of what, after all, was done in his name. ‘But,’ I responded, ‘from the late 1860s you yourself looked to Russia as the most likely candidate for revolution.’
‘I also wrote with Engels that a Russian Revolution might ‘give the signal to a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both would complement each other’ (preface to a new Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto). That nearly happened. There was almost a revolution in a number of European countries in the years immediately after the First World War, not least Germany, of course. But it was not to be. And then Russia was on its own, a country with a very small proletariat and no democratic tradition. It was a recipe for a cruel authoritarian regime. And that is exactly what happened. We envisaged socialism in terms of emancipation, self-management and the overwhelming majority. But in fact it became the opposite. It was socialism in the name of the people, but in the hands of a small minority.’

‘But it was done with your ideas, in your name.’

‘So what,’ he replied. ‘Marxism became many different traditions. This was one, and at first it looked a goer. The problem was that it became the Marxism. It became the official line. All other schools, like those of the Second International, were cast into outer darkness, were excommunicated. As a consequence Marxism, which had grown up in the West, became indelibly associated with the East, with backwardness, with despotism. Socialism was estranged from democracy. That was a tragedy.’

I was surprised by Marx’s frankness. But then, perhaps he was a philosopher first and a partisan second, in spite of what it says on his grave in Highgate Cemetery. I pushed him further:’ But surely you must take some responsibility for what was done in your name, surely there was an incipient authoritarianism in your own outlook?’

‘In our stress on the laws of history and the inevitability of socialism, we gave credence to a certain self-righteousness, an elitism, the idea that the end justified the means. But you can’t seriously hold me responsible for what happened under Stalin, for God’s sake.’

‘But didn’t your own style of debate and polemic set a rather bad example to your followers? It was marked by a degree of intolerance which was imitated by many, including Lenin.’

Marx looked annoyed. Gesticulating vigorously, he said: ‘It was the culture of my time, especially in the refugee circles in London. Anyway, I can’t be blamed for the behaviour of others whom I never met.’
‘In your writing you saw socialism as the inevitable consequence of capitalism. If you said it once you said it a thousand times. You wrote with extraordinary insight about capitalism, such that today many people who would never dream of calling themselves Marxists are influenced by your ideas. You wrote much about revolutions, particularly 1848 and the Paris Commune. And yet you wrote precious little about socialism. When the Bolsheviks took power, they inherited little more than a blank piece of paper.’

‘I suppose we assumed that when the moment arrived, it would be relatively clear what needed to be done. We were guilty, I guess, of a certain utopianism. It would be all right on the night. The other reason was that it never seemed like the main priority. It always lay somewhere in the future. Understanding capitalism was always more important than dreaming about socialism.’

‘OK, then, let’s talk about capitalism. You made two predictions. First, capital would become increasingly concentrated, that the private nature of its appropriation would become more and more manifest. And second, the industrial proletariat would grow to represent the vast majority of the population, and thereby become the central agency of a new society, socialism. Now the latter just hasn’t happened. The industrial proletariat is now contracting rapidly. And the working population, far from becoming more homogeneous, has in fact grown increasingly heterogeneous.’

‘Let’s be clear about the history first. After I faded from the scene, the industrial proletariat continued to grow with great speed right across Europe. This was true until after 1945. It was only in the 1950s that the industrial working class began to decline as a proportion of the workforce. Moreover, it had become steadily more organised, more class-conscious, just as we had envisaged.’
‘Your account is valid for Europe, but not so much elsewhere – the US, for example.’

‘True. But we didn’t get the US right more generally. Anyway, that aside, I accept that since the 1950s or thereabouts, the prediction about the growing preponderance of the industrial proletariat began to come unstuck. It is now clear that the growth of the proletariat was the characteristic of a specific era rather than a permanent trend. Now it is in decline. By the end of the century, it will comprise less than 20 per cent of the working population in this country.’

‘Exactly. Which means that while for a period you were right about the centrality of the working class as an agency of change, that era is over. The working class is in decline. Your historic agency of socialism is no more.’

‘I agree. This was our greatest mistake. For a period we got it right. In fact we got it right for some 70 years or so after I bowed out. That was no mean achievement. But no longer, history has even caught up with old Marx. What is more, I fear it means our concept of socialism needs rethinking. What does socialism mean without its central agency? I guess it’s back to the drawing board.’

Again, I was struck by Marx’s willingness to look facts in the face, even when they struck at the foundations of his thought. I said as much to him, and he reminded me of his favourite motto: De omnibus dubitandum (“You must have doubts about everything”). It was time for some lubrication. I recalled he was partial to a little red wine. He responded enthusiastically, expressing mild surprise that the Weekend FT couldn’t afford a better vintage.

He continued: ‘We have only discussed one of my two predictions. It seems to me the other was remarkably accurate. Whatever the tendencies towards decentralisation within companies, there has been an enormous concentration of capital. Look at the great global companies. Furthermore, I always insisted that capitalism was a revolutionary system. I never suggested that it had exhausted its potential, though I admit even I am surprised by its vitality in the second half of the 20th century.

‘It is my turn to quote my writings to you. ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away . . . all that is solid melts into air.’ Not bad, eh? And I wrote that in 1848, well before my work on Capital. That’s not a bad description of the last decade.’

‘There is no doubt you were remarkably accurate about the dynamism of capitalism. Indeed, you, more than anyone else, have influenced how people think about it today. At the same time, though, you completely underestimated its capacity to adapt, to bring about an ever rising standard of living. More, you didn’t really think it was capable of reform, of becoming something far more humane than it was when you were writing.’

Marx leaned forward, poured himself another glass of wine, paused for a moment, and then began: ‘Certainly I underestimated the capacity of the working class, by collective organisation, to counteract the tendency for its income to stagnate or decline. That is clear. But I slightly contest the second point. Already, well before I took my leave, mass independent socialist parties, generally describing themselves as Marxist, were taking root, and were making some headway in terms of reform. Engels and I both recognised the fundamental importance of universal suffrage. Are you familiar with Engels’ introduction to my Class Struggles in France, which he wrote in 1895? He argued that universal suffrage had rendered obsolete the insurrectionary methods of 1848 and the Paris Commune. Further, he suggested that the state itself could be reformed from within.’

‘Nevertheless, the reforms that have been achieved in Western Europe surely go well beyond your wildest dreams. In the latter years of your life, you certainly came to recognise the value of piecemeal reform, indeed you saw it as the best hope at that time, but it was always in the belief that at some point there would be a revolution. Looking back on it now, would you be sympathetic to one of your followers, the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, who became a powerful advocate of gradualism, of seeing the process of reform as rather more important than the ultimate goal, the revolution?’

Marx seemed unsure how to respond. He passed his hand through his beard, then said: ‘In retrospect, I think I was right until the failure of the revolutions in Western Europe in the early ’20s. That marked the end of the possibility of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. The best option then was the path of reform. The parties of the Second International, like the German Social Democrats, probably offered the best long-term model.’

‘So, do you see your legacy in terms of the Soviet Union or, for example, Sweden?’

‘Both are part of the legacy. But now it is clear that the first has run its course, has failed. On the other hand, the social democratic tradition remains full of historical running.’ Marx pulled his pocket watch from the left hand fob of his waistcoat. ‘I must be on my way,’ he said. ‘I have to meet someone at Maitland Park Road.’ (His former home).

‘Briefly then, one or two final points. Where does all this leave Marxism at the end of the millennium?’

‘Let’s be clear, I never subscribed to Marxism. Remember what I said: ‘All I know is I’m not a Marxist.’ But I cannot deny now that there is a Marxist tradition. It seems to me that the meaning of 1989 is that the umbilical cord that linked Marxism to 1917 is now broken. Marxism finally becomes pluralistic, it becomes Marxisms. At the same time it loses its exclusiveness. It takes its place alongside other traditions in a position of equality rather than predominance. After more than a century, that’s how it should be.’

‘But what is left?’

‘I think we have answered much of this already. I would only add that capitalism is alive and well, and so, therefore, is inequality and injustice. It is all around us.’

‘Do you have any regrets about your life?’

‘Why should I? To quote Hamlet:
‘Sure, he, that made us with such large discourse,
‘Looking before and after, gave us not
‘That capability and godlike reason,
‘To fust in us unused . . . ”

I looked up and he had gone. I rubbed my eyes. Was this a dream, or the exclusive to end all exclusives?