“Philosophers have interpreted the world the point is to change it”.
This was the opening of Melvin Bragg’s Radio 4 programme ‘In Our time’, broadcast on Thursday 14 of July. This well known quote from Marx sums up the essence of Marx’s thought. Yet it is not the usual introduction to a programme introduced by the presenter, Lord Melvin Bragg, a close friend of Tony Blair’s.
The reason it was used by a rather bewildered Bragg, was that Radio 4 listeners had just voted Karl Marx the ‘Greatest Philosopher of all time’.
The vote for Marx was overwhelming, winning nearly 28% of the vote compared to his nearest rival, the free trade supporter and contemporary of Adam Smith, David Hume, who received just over 12.5%. This vote represents a blow to capitalist commentators and their propaganda. It illustrates hostility towards modern capitalist society amongst even sections of the middle class.
The result enraged the right-wing Tory press and media. The reactionary Daily Mail denounced Radio 4 listeners for voting for the ‘Monster Marx’. For weeks it had been reported that Marx was in the lead. Now, dismayed capitalist commentators, following this victory have questioned the validity of the poll in which 30,000 people participated.
They have protested that socialists mobilised supporters to vote. Yet all the main capitalist journals attempted to do the same. The Economist supported either Adam Smith or John Locke. But as they admitted, these pro-capitalist philosophers failed to make it onto the short list. So they urged readers to vote for David Hume. The Guardian favoured Kant. The Independent initially favoured Wittgenstein but then changed its mind.
However, Radio 4 listeners rejected this advice and overwhelmingly supported Marx. Capitalist commentators hoped that they had buried Marx with the collapse of the former bureaucratic one party regimes which ruled in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Relevance of Marx
However, the relevance of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his ideas are increasingly seen to be relevant to understanding modern capitalist society. As Francis Wheen, who wrote a very good biography about Karl Marx, pointed out it was this great philosopher who was the first to anticipate globalisation which he described as the “universal interdependence of nations”. It was Marx who explained the ruthless exploitation of the working class and demand for profit which drives capitalist society. As a result the enduring Herculean philosophical contribution of Marx was overwhelmingly recognised by listeners of Radio 4.
Even some individuals from the ruling class have been compelled to recognise the strength of Marx’s analysis. Wheen recently quoted the business correspondent of the ‘New Yorker’, John Cassidy, who in 1997 reported a conversation with an investment banker who explained: “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.” Cassidy himself turned to read Marx for the first time. He found, “Riveting passages about globalisation, inequality, political corruption, monopolisation, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence.” All these are issues to be found at the centre of modern capitalist society.
Yet Marx did not only analyse capitalism. He outlined the alternative to it in the form of scientific socialism and the role of the working class in building a new socialist society. He fought to build international organisations of the working class and advance the struggles of working people at great personal sacrifice, arriving in Britain as a penniless asylum seeker. It was not only in the realm of ideas that Marx made this gigantic contribution. For him his philosophy was a tool to understand the laws of capitalist society but the essential task was to end the exploitation it brought. ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world the point is to change it’. He spent his life fighting to do just that.
The vote by Radio 4 listeners recognises his historic contribution. It is a rebuff to Bragg and other capitalist commentators who thought they had succeeded in burying Marx beneath the ruins of the Berlin Wall. His ideas are destined to become the most influential of the 21st century.