It was the shadow Marx, the spectral Marx, who was voted the Greatest Philosopher of All Time by the audience of the state broadcasting channel of the Iron Heel’s junior partner. (www.bbc.co.uk search for 'In Our Time')Or do we 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? Not unless we’ve seriously OD’ed on the waccybaccy. So what is the character of this spectral Marx,? What kind of contest did it win?
‘Pythonesque’, like ‘surreal’, is a near exhausted word. But what else captures that bizarre, ridiculous, shameful contest on BBCR4? There was Anne Robinson pimping for Nietzsche, Terry Wogan for Marcus Aurelius, and so on.
The members of the top ten are strange enough: Socrates and Plato; but Marx and no Engels; Kant but no Hegel, Nietzsche and no Heidegger. The voting distribution is uncanny. Without Marx the standard deviation of the proportions is 2.6, with him it is just over 7 . A generous thought might be that this was this a collective will to satirise the concentration of capital? But no. The will to irony has not reached this level of seriousness. Note that the final voting was on the ‘top ten’– we are in a world which has surpassed the one of which it was said that ‘there’s no business like show business’ – all business is now show-business, the business of the sham. Voters chose their ‘favorites’ as if they were voting for a Big Brother contestant.
So 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? At least three of them would have been compelled to deride the process which so consecrated them: Wittgenstein because there was no paradigm outside of the contest, it was a performative not indicative event; Nietzsche because it was acclaim by the mob, Marx because it only made sense as being modelled on the template of generalised commodity-production.
What distinguishes Marx from all the rest is that in communist society he would be read only for historical interest, all of the rest have something of continuing relevance. This is one of the ways in which Marx is not a philosopher in the sense that the others are. (If at all).
Conservatives have quite reasonably derided this contest. Could one imagine such as having occurred in one of the Stalinist states where the winner would have been allowed to be Burke or Hayek? Of course not. Stalinists took ideas far too seriously for that. But here, now … it doesn’t matter. As Neil Postman argues, Amusing Ourselves to Death ‘Orwell feared the banning of books, Huxley feared that there would be no need to ban them’. We are now in Huxleyland.
One of the remarkable facts about the history of Brit Labourism is the number of its leading figures who have cited The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as one of their leading influences. It is remarkable because of the central place in this text of ‘The Great Money Trick’ that brilliant dramatisation of the essentially exploitative nature of the wage-labour/capital relationship - 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 (the kind of thing which Stedman Jones and his kind earn their bread from). This is echoed in Francis Wheen’s advocacy of Marx – he degrades Marx into just a more prescient Keynes, someone who predicted globalisation and so on and so. What Wheen screens out of attention here is the critical distance on class-society which was the central trajectory of Marx’s project.
The key to Marx winning this contest is that the imperative of official intellectual culture is indeed that described in that wonderful sound-bite: the solid must continually deliquesce and reform into crystals which are different only in their surface sheen. There must always be the shamshow of opposition, of criticism. Paul Krugman well shows this in his essay on why intellectuals misunderstand Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage (‘Ricardo’s Difficult Idea’, http://www.pkarchive.org/trade/rica
That is the ‘Marx’ which won this contest.
It might be worth while seeing what White Nationalists and Islamists make of this ‘victory’ of Marx. They will likely see it as further confirmation of the shamsubversiveness of the Left and of Marx. Of the first they are, of course, correct. Unless Marx can be separated from the tradition of Leftism then we are all in for hard times.
This is the first draft of what will be a jointly written short article