Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Karl Marx has been called 'a thinker for the 21st century.' (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)
Karl Marx has been called 'a thinker for the 21st century.' (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)

With financial meltdowns and labour protests, is it the springtime for Marx? Add to ...

In Highgate Cemetery, the faithful still come to drape flowers over the giant bust inscribed with some of Karl Marx's most famous words: "Workers of all lands unite" and "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it."

It is the most-visited grave in the cemetery, even if most of the pilgrims don't come from Britain, the land of Marx's exile, where he died in near-obscurity in 1883. One of the volunteers at the cemetery, where fewer than a dozen mourners gathered at his funeral, says, "We get lots of Chinese visitors. They seem to think he's the greatest man who ever lived." Around the base of his monument, crocuses have pushed their way through the cold earth.

More related to this story

Still, with the West suffering from the after-effects of the financial crisis and revolution in the air in parts of the world, could it possibly be springtime for Marx? Could Marxism, the Union Carbide of political brands, possibly be rehabilitated - or, more likely, mined for the bits that are still relevant in a chaotic world?

The signs may be sparser and more frail than those spring flowers around his grave, but students of the historian's work point to a few potential indicators: Striking workers in Egypt provided crucial leverage in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak; thousands of people have poured onto the streets of the American Midwest to protest against draconian labour legislation in various states. In Britain, trade unions are organizing marches on Saturday that will probably be the largest seen in the country since the anti-war demonstrations of 2003. Workers may not be the gravediggers of capitalism, as Marx and Friedrich Engels prophesied, but they may no longer be its zombies, either.

At this moment, the most famous living historian of Marxist thought is digging him from the toxic bed where Stalin and Mao left him: "Today Marx is, once again, very much a thinker for the 21st century," Eric Hobsbawm writes in his 16th book, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. (The collection of essays, just published in Britain, will be available in September in Canada and the U.S.)

The title is much more crusading than the book's sober content - and its cover, which features a picture of Che Guevara, but not Marx, may give some indication of the taint still attached to poor old Karl.

In these essays spanning 5½ decades, Prof. Hobsbawm, who was born in the year of the Russian Revolution, discusses why the time is ripe to revisit this seminal thinker: As an analyst of upheaval in the capitalist system, Marx is unparalleled; as someone whose writings contributed (however tragically) to leading political movements of the 20th century, he is the most influential secular thinker in history; and because he was prescient: "The globalized capitalist world that emerged in the 1990s was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in The Communist Manifesto," Prof. Hobsbawm says.

For one thing, Marx saw that the capitalist system would necessarily concentrate wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer players, and that those players would be forced to search beyond their borders for new markets and consumers to exploit.

Prof. Hobsbawm said in an e-mail interview that the aim of his book "is to explain and to renew the claim for a modified version of Marx's analysis. He was virtually written out of the public scene by an ideology of free-market fundamentalism whose bankruptcy is now evident, even though the U.S. and British governments apparently refused to recognize this."

And not it's not only veteran lefties who appreciate the Marxist analysis, apparently.

Prof. Hobsbawm writes about having lunch with George Soros and tiptoeing around any possibly appetite-disrupting radical talk, only to have the financier say: "That man discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of." Even John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book defending free markets, A Future Perfect, write that Marx's "description of globalization is as sharp today as it was 150 years ago."

When Christopher Hitchens, a famously robust leftist in his youth, wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled The Revenge of Karl Marx, he quoted financial journalist James Buchan on the ubiquity of the philosopher's analysis: "Marx is so embedded in our Western cast of thought that few people are even aware of their debt to him. Everybody I know now believes that their attitudes are to an extent a creation of their material circumstances."

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular