Opium of the people

Some time ago the listeners of one of BBC Radio 4’s flagship intellectual programmes, In Our Time, voted Karl Marx, by an ‘electoral tidal wave’, the greatest philosopher of all time.

Speaking as an unreconstructed leftie, it was an extremely satisfying moment. Right there in their greatest bastion, Britain’s middle classes were voting for the very nemesis of their world. Plainly they either don’t understand what Marx actually said or they are none too happy about the world they live in. A bit of both, I suspect.

It was especially pleasing to hear the programme’s presenter, Melvyn Bragg, stutter and sway as he tried to come to terms with this appalling denouement to his pet project. But he failed. All through the special programme on Marx that followed he seemed to be unable to come to terms with – or even allow much discussion of – the idea that Marx might still be so utterly relevant to his audience’s lives. As one of the great symbols of Tony Blair’s far more appalling New Labour project, in which even England’s peculiarly pale and uninteresting excuse for a socialist political party has finally been put to sleep, it was a pleasure to hear Melvyn Bragg so far out of his comfort zone – not to mention his intellectual depth.

But this enthusiasm for Marx was by no means a flash in the pan. I can’t cite any evidence, but I distinctly recall hearing a year or so back that the most popular courses at London University were on Marx and Marxism. More budding In Our Time listeners in the pipeline, no doubt. Watch out, Melvyn.

But what exactly is it they are looking for right now? Indeed, what does the average member of England’s middle classes know about Karl Marx that they would vote for him? What does the average student know about him that would actually drive them into the lecture theatres?

Having done my bachelor’s degree (1976-1979) in psychology and sociology, Marx was an unavoidable item on the agenda. But as this was the 70’s and I had had the good sense to be 16 in 1968, I already knew a little about him. And of course he was regarded as an entirely contemporary thinker, though usually for all the wrong reasons. Most of the Marxists I knew had vaguely pro-Soviet leanings. I even knew one couple who were outright Stalinists, and spoke in that strange mechanical lingo of ‘dialectical materialism’ that is so unlike Marx himself. He could be a pig to read, but there are whole chapters of Capital that read like magical incantations: an immanent power flows through them like a terrible force. You read them and your skin tingles and your heart leaps. Really.

But only a tiny fraction of Karl Marx’s immense outpourings on history, capitalism, calculus, the Tsarist Secret Service and so on has entered into popular consciousness. Given the man’s impact on the world, this is hard to explain. Perhaps it is the often extreme tedium of his literary style – Volume II of Capital is excruciating – or perhaps it is the fact that, in many circles, quoting Marx has about the same respectability as quoting the Devil. At the very least you find yourself being looked at as though you’ve just made a joke in very poor taste.

However, Marx had many moments of sheer literary genius, so it is inevitable that some small nuggets should have crept into everyday rhetoric. Unfortunately, most of these prove to be fools’ gold, at least for would-be Marxologists, being either unoriginal to Marx or fundamentally misunderstood. In fact it is hard to identify any one remark with any one writer, given that the era all but breathed revolutionary rhetoric. Marx himself attributed ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat’ to August Blanqui (1805-1881), ‘workers of the world, unite!’ is a thoroughly un-Marxist translation of Marx’s actual words, and ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ is very likely borrowed from the anarchist Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). Finally, ‘The workers have nothing to lose… but their chains’ was probably original, but co-authored with Engels (altogether more readable than Marx, though intellectually much less brilliant). It is also from the Communist Manifesto, which is probably the worst piece of Marxism Marx ever wrote, so Karl might have been grateful if history had consigned it to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’, as he did the much better German Ideology.

Still, it is especially ironic that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is so well known, since it always seems to have been understood in a sense which is almost the opposite of Marx’s original intentions. But then I suppose a dialectician must expect his best phrases to be turned on their heads. Nowadays it is taken as a straightforward denunciation of religion, whereas Marx was surely trying to express the equivocal relationship between religion and human existence. To put this famous remark back into context:

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call them to give up their illusions about their condition is call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. (From the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.)

This brilliant, terse, pungent summary of the materialist view of religion is typical of Marx at his best. The method it uses is also typical of Marxism in its mature form: a revelation of the dynamism of history and consciousness, sweeping up everything in its path, both driven and undermined by the inexhaustible tension between moral consolation and political action. Writing like this, Marx has a startling way of showing that fireworks and analysis can go hand in hand. Which only makes it all the greater shame that, at his worst, Marx is stunningly dull and obscure. However, in this case it is clear that the object of Marx’s criticisms is not religion as such. For him religion was mainly a symptom of underlying structures and processes that produced the things he really did abhor – oppression, ignorance, fear, alienation. He sympathises with the underlying need, even if he does deplores the way religion fulfils it.

Perhaps it is just as well that Marxism can only be comprehended by going beyond the rhetoric and into serious research. Perhaps this shields it from the toy Marxism of so much modern day revolutionism, which takes the title of socialist even while depriving socialism of all humanity. In fact, along with ‘democracy’ and ‘nationalism’, ‘socialism’ spent most of the 20th century as little but a substitute for ‘true religion’ as the indispensable rhetorical device of Western politics. Where a century or two ago the crucial justification of revolution (or reaction) was that it would refurbish the faith to its ancient purity, today it promises the rule of the people in some form. What then does it matter that Marx is misquoted, any more than that the Sermon on the Mount is subverted by hypocritical churches? It’s not as though the people who misquote him would be any more likely to institute a socialist society if they got the words right.

What did I personally find in Marx? A while ago an old friend of mine asked me whether spending two decades in business had altered my assessment of Marx. Yes, I said, it had. I am now even more convinced he was right than ever. What I found in Marx is the greatest and most fearless theorist of human freedom of all time. No, Melvyn, not the greatest philosopher of all time (at least among Westerners, I think that one goes to Hegel), because philosophers sit in university libraries and think deep thoughts. Marx did all that and then took it out of the library (the British Library in his case) and into working class politics, newspapers and dozens of great political tracts.

That’s what I want to do when I grow up.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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