Life & Culture

What's the point of Marx?

David Edmonds' Jewniversity column examines the work of Oxford University's Jo Wolff


Almost without exception, governments that claim an ideological allegiance to Marxism have been catastrophic. Exhibits 1, 2 and 3, the USSR, Venezuela and North Korea, but I could go on.

That alone is enough for most people to dismiss the writings of Karl Marx. But it’s not just that. Marx saw himself essentially as a scientist rather than a philosopher and as a man of science he made predictions that were subsequently discredited. Revolution would first occur in the most advanced capitalist societies, he forecast. Nope. The first communist government seized power in 1917 in the largely peasant society of Russia. As yet, there are still no stirrings of revolution in North Finchley, the apogee of advanced bourgeois-capitalism.

All of which begs the question, is there anything in Marx’s voluminous writings that’s worth preserving?

Anybody who studies political theory in the UK will have on their reading lists An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff, one of the country’s leading political theorists and now Chair in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.

Jo Wolff is also the author of a mini-masterpiece, Why Read Marx Today? Given its subject matter, it’s a surprisingly funny book packed with delightful anecdotes and asides. Did you know that the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto began, “A frightful hobgoblin is stalking Europe”?

No Marxist himself, Professor Wolff nonetheless believes Marx offers important insights, relevant for today. They include his writings on alienation. Marx was quick to grasp that the industrial revolution brought a fundamental shift in our relationship to work. Highly mechanised processes tore apart the previous intimate connection with what we produced. Alienation arose in several forms — but essentially industrialisation reduced humans to the level of a machine. Still today many people feel at their most human when they’re away from work.

Then there’s class. Marx’s claim that classes would increasingly divide into the tiny few who don’t need work and the mass of people who do, has turned out to be bunkum. And it is silly to split contemporary society into two crude blocs: the working and the capitalist class. But not silly is Marx’s insight that our social and economic position shape how we perceive the world. Marx thought that the most disadvantaged often have a stronger grip on reality than their privileged compatriots. Take one example: rich and successful people are likely (understandably) to attribute their success to talent and hard work - and understate the advantages from which so many of them have benefited. The poor are more likely to recognise the structural forces that shape and limit our lives.

Marx anticipated the tendency, that many people now bemoan, by which almost everything gets turned into a commodity, to be bought and sold. There are still some areas where we ban the market — we are not permitted to trade in human organs for example — but money has pretty much penetrated every other domain. And money, as Marx understood, transforms the nature of an exchange: the practice of giving blood for free, feels very different from selling it for cash.

Jo Wolff’s father was born in Frankfurt his paternal grandparents were recorded as being put on transport to Lodz, but not recorded as arriving. His mother’s side of the family is East European — his mum was raised in Bournemouth. Protesting strongly —for he had already decided religion was nonsense — Jo endured a bar mitzvah.

He started to feel a little more comfortable with a cultural Jewish identity at university, where he had a few Jewish teachers (including the great Marxist scholar Jerry Cohen) who were, as Jo puts it “quite relaxed about being Jewish”. In the last few years he’s made more of his Jewish roots, “because I feel that at this time those of us who are of immigrant stock should let it be known”.

I first got to know Jo when I interviewed him over a decade ago. Before contacting him I looked him up online. A short bio explained that he had been raised in South-East London, had specialised in philosophy, had been a Harkness Fellow in the US and his father had arrived in the UK from Germany on the Kindertransport. This struck me as odd because I was raised in South-East London, specialised in philosophy, had been a Harkness Fellow in the US and my father arrived in the UK from Germany on the Kindertransport.

It’s just a shame our fathers — Herbert and Herbert — never met.

David Edmonds (@DavidEdmonds100) is a Distinguished Research Fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

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