History’s Postman

Tom Nairn

  • Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde by Jacques Attali
    Fayard, 549 pp, €23.00, May 2005, ISBN 2 213 62491 7

More than a quarter of listeners asked last year in a Radio 4 poll who they thought was the most important philosopher for today’s world replied Karl Marx – he was easily the winner, ahead of Hume, Plato, Karl Popper and others. Asked to comment, Eric Hobsbawm said he thought that the fall of Soviet Communism had at last allowed people to disentangle Marxism from Moscow. Francis Wheen, the author of a recent biography of Marx, made a similar point. The man had finally emerged from under the political debris, and barely resembled the quasi-religious icon and prophetic travesty of the 20th century.

Jacques Attali’s book is another remarkable signpost on the same new landscape. The author isn’t a man of the traditional left, and makes sure readers know it. In the introduction he states:

Let me say, with neither undue emphasis nor nostalgia, that I’ve never been any kind of ‘Marxist’. Marx’s works did not inform my youthful years – indeed, incredible as it may appear, I hardly heard of him while studying science, law, economics and history. Serious contact came only from a belated reading of his books, plus some correspondence with the author of Pour Marx, Louis Althusser.

Attali comes from the old Jewish community in Algeria, most of whose members emigrated to France after Algerian independence. Best known as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, he was also an adviser to François Mitterrand in the 1980s. Two of his previous books have also been unusual in aims and arguments: Bruits (2001), on the nature of music, and L’Homme nomade (2003), a study of displacement as the foundation of culture.

From the 15th until the 19th century, most of the men on both sides of the Marx family tree were rabbis. When he wrote about ‘all the dead generations’ weighing on the living, he knew what he was talking about. One of the results was the famous/infamous Jewish Question of 1844, an attempt to distance himself from this past. One must assume Attali felt a similar need, since he has produced two essays along similar lines: Les Juifs, le monde et l’argent (2001) and Israël, les Juifs et l’anti-sémitisme (2004). However distant from Marxian political ideology, he feels a strong affinity with Marx’s family heritage, and also with his later history of displacement and often wretched exile. This allows him to adopt a combination of human closeness and conceptual impartiality – more or less the opposite of the old hagiographies. After 1917, Marxist stories were largely composed in a forced retrospect, according to which both the family and the cultural-territorial origins of Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels were merely accidental preludes to a world-historic symphony: the triumph of socialism, Lenin and historical (if not dialectical) materialism.

Attali’s quiet, disenchanted treatment suggests a deeply alternative reading. Although from quite distinct class and religious backgrounds, both Marx and Engels were Rhinelanders – that is, natives of a region where different cultural and linguistic communities had fused together. Inextricable cross-fertilisation of influences lay at the root of what became Marxism. It is true that pompous obeisance has always been made to this, in terms of a supposed mingling of English political economy, French politics and German philosophy. But there was a local habitation and a name as well, and an incurably human embodiment. After the French Revolution, this border country furnished the conditions for a startling emancipation: a release of democratic energies and visionary capacities which matched a simultaneous explosion of applied science. In his youth, Marx was obsessed by the rapid spread of railways along the Rhine valley. Much later, one of the few subjects allowed to distract him from Das Kapital was the development of electricity, which he rightly saw as the precondition of great social transformations. Much earlier, another vital bit of modernity had been produced in the same country, in Gutenberg’s workshop in Mainz. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, print was the precondition of all modern ‘imagined communities’. Now it would give rise to the most widely-read book of the modern epoch, Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto of February 1848. And from that sprang the imaginary communities which aimed, between 1917 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, to defeat and replace all others.

Yet as Attali observes – relying no doubt on personal experience of deadlines and editorial curses – the Manifesto was a last-minute chore, scrabbled through in Brussels in the last week of January 1848. The League of Communists had demanded words for the times by 1 February, a fortnight after big riots in Naples and Palermo had forced King Ferdinand II to concede a constitution. ‘Clearly foreshortened and written in haste,’ is the verdict of David McLellan, the editor of the 1998 World’s Classics edition of the Manifesto, to which Attali adds only that he doesn’t see how the authors had time even to reread the thing, never mind rewrite it more carefully. By the time it appeared in mid-February the democratic revolution had spread to Paris, and the Prussian government (Prussia then owned most of the Rhineland) had got Marx expelled from neighbouring Belgium. He went to Paris, naturally: like many Rhenish intellectuals he had always regarded France as an ideological homeland.

‘Ideological’ meant ‘universal’, perhaps most of all for the inhabitants of Rhénanie, Alsace and Lorraine, who were brought up speaking German dialects but looking south or west for emancipation from petty feudal despotisms. Even in mid-century they identified France with enlightenment, rather than with Napoleon, Nicolas Chauvin and the rising tide of nationalisme. The indecent haste of the Marx-Engels text probably contributed to the bald assertiveness and prophetic exaggeration that made it a bestseller. The ‘dead generations’ had their say in the Manifesto, above all in its literary flourishes (the Hebraic or, for Christians, Old Testament thunder that proved perfectly translatable into the cadences of other faiths and conditions). Like so many others, Attali underscores its predictions of globalisation, and the great image of capitalism as the half-mad sorcerer of modernity – ‘no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’.

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[*] Cambridge, 334 pp., £15.99, July 2005, 0 521 54779 2.

[†] Reviewed in the LRB by Andrew Nathan (17 November 2005).