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’.

Protagonists of the Marxism that Marx himself disowned have always emphasised the rational, economics-led side of the famous forecasts, epitomised as ‘historical materialism’. However, what made the pronunciamento so irresistible was the linkage of this with prophecy. Prophets have to discern a divine meaning in the nether world, and identify some agency for its redemption – that is, beyond the prophets themselves. For Rhinelanders, both problems seemed readily soluble. Coming from a profoundly binational background, whose successful civil society rested on cohabitation (or playing both sides of the fence), they naturally put the social way ahead of the national. The galvanising impact of capitalism on this society had already produced a new ex-rural working class, above all in the northern area of Wuppertal where Engels came from. Both the journalist Marx and the industrialist’s son Engels had studied and written on the phenomenon; and Engels used his time with the family firm in Manchester to compile The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a classic early sociological study.

The authors were strongly linked by their common origin. Like all the others, Attali’s biography makes much of a remarkable moment in the summer of 1844, when they in some sense discovered one another (in Paris) and thereafter remained inseparable. Wheen describes this as a ten-day stopover that would end by shaking the world, and cites Engels’s own later verdict: ‘When I visited Marx in Paris … our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time.’ Attali quotes Paul Lafargue’s comment that they ‘realised in our own day an ideal of friendship depicted by the poets of antiquity’. Unusual, certainly, but possibly explicable more mundanely by their being compatriots in a foreign city.

Marx and Engels were ‘public intellectuals’ in today’s sense, and their arena was furnished by the campaigns for Rhineland democracy, part of the now spreading European revolutionary process. Between 1844 and 1848-49, they were largely taken up with battles for democracy. The reason this merits the emphasis Attali gives it is clear. These all-absorbing battles were diverted or defeated, but although that defeat was not terminal, for the lifespans of Marx and Engels frustration couldn’t help being decisive. The 1848 document looked so far beyond the present because it had to. Religion may have been the opiate of the older world; but after 1848-49, utopia was forced to be that of the new – and not only for a few exiled intellos in Paris and London.

As Jonathan Sperber has shown in The European Revolutions 1848-51,[*] the social and the national were intimately conjoined in the tragedy of 1848: ‘Ironically, it was the overthrow of the authoritarian pre-1848 regimes and the creation of a freer and more open public life that revealed the extent of those regimes’ supporters and allowed them to organise themselves effectively.’ In Prussia, for instance, the ruling order ‘seized the artillery of the revolution and turned it against the revolution itself’ via new political organisations and the free press (such as Marx’s Rheinische Zeitung), invariably stressing the national rather than the social, a formula that ‘could easily be applied more broadly’. ‘By 1848,’ Sperber goes on, ‘the politics of nationalism, developed in conscious or unconscious imitation of the (French) original of sixty years previously, had spread across Europe,’ and generated clashes of interest that even the Habsburgs could ‘cleverly exploit, to bring the revolutionary movement to an end’.

In his earlier study of Rhineland Radicals (1991), Sperber points out that they remained in a sense ‘mid-19th-century Jacobins’, thinking politics out in pre-Napoleonic terms. The 1848 democratic movements were in truth defeated by overwhelming military force – but this force now rested on ‘the loyalty of the mainly rural populations of the core provinces’ of Prussia/Germany. Post-Napoleonic nationalism was the instrument of such loyalty – all the more intense, I suspect, in over-reaction to the majority Catholicism in the Rhineland. Victorious in 1848-49, this mixture would be further intensified by Bismarck’s conquests of 1870-71. By appropriating more of the Rhine valley, he provoked a revived Napoleonism in France: a popular fever that easily survived Napoleon III’s departure, as the nationalisme of the Third and subsequent Republics.

In the Manifesto the sorcerer is given quite different instructions. He is told to ignore nationality and focus on the ‘universal interdependence of nations’. Workers are exhorted to follow the Rhineland example, and resign themselves to being ‘stripped of every trace of national character’. Hence it’s merely a matter of ‘form, not substance’ that ‘the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.’ Form must then give way to substance: to reality, the agency of class, which alone is capable of fulfilling the prophecy revealed in January 1848. Acknowledgment of this truth might take time: just how long is shown by the history of successive national ‘prefaces’ to the text, from the German edition of 1872 to the Italian one of 1893, each one stressing how vital this or that national contribution would be to the final act. ‘Sincere international collaboration of the European nations is possible only if each nation is fully autonomous in its own house,’ Engels told the Poles in 1892, adding: ‘The workers of all the rest of Europe need the independence of Poland just as much as the Polish workers themselves.’

But this didn’t mean that traces of national character counted for their own sake: that diversity might be inscribed in human nature (damnable term), and hence shared by workers with non-workers. The anciens régimes understood quickly how ‘human nature’ could be seized, and (together with the ‘artillery of the revolution’) turned into a way of halting, or at least containing, democracy. Armour-plated, Great Power nationalism became the antidote to democracy. It still is. Napoleon III, Bismarck, Cavour, Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Bush and Blair have all found the script outline in their top drawers, waiting only for national contributions of the moment to be worked out. Such power-nationalism was especially dire for the Rhineland. Its culture had been a fusion of French and Germanic – the two decisive Great Powers of the post-1848 period, whose wars would dominate Europe and the globe for several generations. Their partner in sin was Britain, which soon concocted its own version: ‘Jingoism’ arrived via the music-halls in 1878, five years before Marx’s death from bronchitis – and only a few years behind the nationalisme crystallised by the Franco-Prussian War.

In The Course of German Nationalism from Frederick the Great to Bismarck (1991), Hagen Schulze outlined something of the Rhine country’s political fate, most famously signalled by the ‘Rhine-song-movement’ that emerged after the publication of some verses in the Trierische Zeitung in 1840:

They shall not have it.
Our free German Rhine,
Though like greedy crows
They hoarsely cry for it …
They shall not have it,
Our free German Rhine,
Until its flood has buried
The limbs of our last man!

Composed by an unknown magistrate’s clerk, the rather trite lines struck the chord of aspiring liberal nationalism in the German Confederation, and before long Schumann and others were setting it to music, hoping to turn it into ‘a German Marseillaise’. ‘Metternich sensed the danger,’ Schulze goes on, of this ‘push from below’, and urged the Prussian and other elites to take appropriate, above all military, precautions. These measures determined the sort of nationalism that would capture the rising movement.

Neither the sentiments nor the consequences – the background to Marxism’s genesis – were accidental, as Ernest Gellner, a later thinker from another border country, would put it in Nations and Nationalism (1983). They were not the result of history delivering the redemption message to ‘the wrong address’ – to nation instead of class. ‘Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob,’ Gellner wrote. ‘The awakening message was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error delivered to nations … It is now necessary for revolutionary activists to persuade the wrongful recipient to hand over the message, and the zeal it engenders, to the rightful recipient.’

The nearest the Rhineland got to escaping from the long-range effects of the Rhine-song was a very short-lived, French-backed separatist movement of 1923-24. Its high (or low) point was the ‘Rhineland Day’ in Düsseldorf, also known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. Twenty thousand people converged in support of a separate Rhineland Republic, and were attacked by Hitler’s SA Action Commandos. Machine-guns were used, and a hundred participants were killed, as well as six policemen. After 1945 the French Army of Occupation restored order with tanks, and political order was restored by another famous Rhinelander, at that time the mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer. Conventional accounts usually say that Adenauer flirted with Rhineland separatism, before realising that it stood no hope of working. Between the 1840s and the 1980s there was indeed no chance of such redress (although the Rhineland did quite well in Adenauer’s new federal Germany).

Attali points out that the Manifesto did envisage socialism as being due for delivery later, once the capitalist sorcerer had accomplished his global works. In practice, though, ‘later’ didn’t have much appeal. In the throes of industrialisation, the uprooted masses and classes called for changes now, or at least pretty soon – i.e. they sought short cuts, rather than evolution. Fabian then Bernsteinian long-termism was too often humanly intolerable. The maturation of democracy and equality might be inevitable, but it risked being invisible even to the children of each succeeding generation. Some shorter route had to be found, imposed by political will if need be, through a more rational state. Indeed, even through ‘dictatorship’, provided this was guided by enlightened members of the vanguard.

All biographers of Marx or Engels are now saddled with an obligatory question, the opposite of the former orthodoxy. They have to say why history betrayed the heroes, rather than fulfilling their prophecy. Many readers of Attali’s book will combine it with Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story,[†] but a more general and just as penetrating counterpoint of failure and its effects appeared earlier, in Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2000). ‘The evaluation of the 20th century should not be left in the hands of its victors,’ she warns. It’s more important to understand why democracy failed, and how that can be put right.

Both books contain significant autobiographical elements. Mao follows Jung Chang’s famous account of her family’s sufferings under Chinese Communism in Wild Swans while Buck-Morss relates her involvement with a group of (mainly) Russian scholars and researchers during the implosion of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Thus the collapse of an empire is described from day to day, via the confusions and emotions of a small group of intellectuals, the class once most involved in imposing utopia.

The short-cut strategy generated by defeat led to a need for larger-than-life ideas and movements, party-armies of zealots captained by supermen. Giants or angels alone could wrestle with the sorcerer, and successfully reconfigure the capitalist march of history. Marginalised in the centres of industrialisation, such trends found expression in the peripheral (or ‘backward’) countries where traditional elites had collapsed or been discredited. The way was then open for authentic monsters like Lenin and Mao to take over: projections of a disembodied will, politics as a substitute for, rather than a realisation of, democracy. State power appeared for a time to make possible what democracy and economic growth had failed to produce. These leaders naturally claimed to have intercepted history’s postman and put him right: to have seized the misdirected mail in the name of their own proletariats, as well as of the anti-nationalist aims of the now irreproachable godfathers, Marx and Engels. In truth, neither the nation nor democracy was to be circumvented in this way. Short cuts end by foundering in their own contradictions, and returning the messages to sender (usually via five-minute realists, lackeys and bemedalled scoundrels). As Buck-Morss insists, this truth is now being revealed to neo-conservatives, as formerly to state socialists and Marxist sectarians.

On a recent flight from Melbourne to London the plane overflew the Black Sea in the first morning light. I half-wakened looking down at water, and then peered ahead to try and see the eastern marches of Europe. Quite soon the border may be with Kurdistan, but in April it was still a flat-black line running from one horizon to another. As the dawn-light strengthened, I could see what the darkness was: the Danube delta. Spidery-looking branches and lakes shone up from the immense water-world, and before long I could trace them back to a single majestic stream from the eastern borderlands, endlessly contested Danubia. Transylvania became visible, and the hills of what most people still half think of as Yugoslavia. After this strangely moving welcome to Europe, cloud closed in. By the time the plane was over the other great border country – north of Mulhouse/Mülhausen, via Alsace and the Saarland up to Marx’s birthplace in Trèves/Trier – the Rhine was invisible.

Marxism was a Rhineland-based diversion of global history, mistaken for the mainstream during a prolonged period of warfare, genocide and democratic defeat. Its ismic (or utopian-religious) form gained overmuch glamour and standing, via state-power structures that were themselves accidents of uneven development. The results may be compared to the strange inland delta of the Danube itself, that area between Slovakia, Austria and Hungary where, below the Bratislava locks, the great river breaks up temporarily into competing minor streams, marshes and islands, as if the sea were drawing near. But it is still far off and the river has to resume its course for thousands of kilometres, passing through the deep, dangerous Iron Gate gorge between Serbia and Romania.

Thus were great state-imposed earthwork constructions overwhelmed by the power of the sorcerer, as the mainstream resumed its onward course, reaching at last into today’s true delta, as globalisation. However, this implies that something like the victory promised in 1848 may also become possible, a century and a half late: the generalisation and deepening of democracy, as a precondition of whatever social forms the ocean ahead may then make possible. This is what Attali’s humanism tries to encompass, by tracing its origins in Marx’s own life and circumstances.

The point is not that the Rhinelanders are returning for a second bid (though some habitués are still around, pining for splashes of holy water). It is that since the 1980s, the whole world has become more like the old Rhineland. Globalisation means many different things, but among them is the conversion of the world into an unavoidable, forced terrain of confluence, a cross-fertilisation from which escape is impossible: the global village, in other words – not self-conscious cosmopolitans playing at being villagers, or scheming to become shamans of the largest imaginable community.

This is why Attali’s ‘world spirit’ is bound to manifest itself as esprit de paroisse, as well as in resonant proclamations of the greater good, and new ways of squaring developments with God (blank space: fill in as required). To be tolerable at all, globalisation has to foster diversity, through rather than against democracy. ‘Confluence’ implies more than the survival of nations and diverse cultures: it depends on a simultaneous generation and replication of nationalities, on the further propagation of diversity. Identity politics is fate, not affectation. Nationality may have been abused by the post-1848 Great Powers and their short-lived empires; but it was also the nether world’s way of staying alive, against sorcerers, giants and intellos alike.

It was the author of the redirected mail theory who also pointed out the more profound taproot of history’s unreliable postal service. In an anthropological essay, ‘Origins of Society’ (1988), Gellner argued that ‘one species has somehow escaped the authority of nature and … so it needs new constraints. Somehow, semantic, culturally transmitted limits are imposed on men’ as ‘socially marked bounds’, inevitably of a particular or concrete sort. Without such diversity – the contrary of all-the-sameness or (in terms of latter-day polemics) McDonaldisation – societal change would be impossible, as would the individuality so prized by neo-liberal ideology. And these come partly via borderlands, both as clash and as cross-breeding: that dimension of inherited anarchy whose preservation will alone make globalisation tolerable, and counter all new projects of empire.

Democracy begins at home: it’s tempting to see this as the leitmotiv of so many different visions. It was true of Karl Marx as well, and Attali has shown more sensitively than other biographers how this worked. When Marx died in 1883, one of the objects put in the coffin and taken to Highgate was a daguerreotype of his father, Hirschel/ Heinrich Marx. Marx had always carried this picture with him, like a valediction or blessing. The source of this loyalty is traced by Attali earlier in his book, where he quotes in its entirety a remarkable letter of 1837. Though reproaching his son (as usual) with spending far too much of the family cash, Heinrich added: ‘You must understand how close to my heart you remain, and that you are one of my main reasons for living. This recent decision’ – to switch from studying law to philosophy – ‘is praiseworthy, wise and deserves to be followed up; if you do so as promised, it will bring great rewards. Others – all of us – are making big sacrifices. But reason has to have its way.’ From that day onwards, Marx carried the daguerreotype in the inside pocket of his waistcoat, next to his heart.

Though it’s tempting to interpret Marx’s example as an inward reversion to Judaism and the rabbinical forebears, I doubt if that’s tenable (and plainly Attali doesn’t think so). Hirschel/Heinrich was someone who, in those terms, had committed a sin as great as anything his son did, by switching from Judaism to Lutheranism in order to keep his job. Jews had been allowed to practise law under Napoleon, but were then forbidden again when the Prussians took over. So it’s more logical to suspect that this is what Karl stuck to, inwardly but loyally: not so much faith in proletarian utopia as a wry yet loving allegiance to a justified sinner like himself, and to the realism of a borderland culture where one did what was needed for ‘one’s own’ – extended family or community – in order to survive, with as much honour as possible. There’s no doubt that his aristocratic connections, via Jenny von Westphalen, also sustained this inwardness.

All of this leads Attali to conclude that today a different Marx can be found, under the circumstances of globalisation, but not in some abstractly ethical realm, as if the fellow meant well, and can’t be held responsible for the frightful distortions and crimes inflicted on his inheritance. No: he can be held responsible all right, and some of what happened was implicit in parts of the Manifesto, and there’s no point in attempting to redeem this or that feature of the orthodoxy, such as class or historical materialism, or pretending that a new politics can be excavated from such remains.

Rather, one must reread the man, and the actual history of his times, rather than rereading the prophet. Prophet and sorcerer alike have been turned into history by globalisation; but as a result the man’s other characteristics emerge more clearly: his particular origins, the way these both formed and limited his worldview, the role of his familial and communal attachments, and the relationship of a displaced life to violent social changes and new horizons. I think this is what Attali means by his subtitle ‘l’esprit du monde’, the world spirit that was somehow embodied in Marx’s career, and is now being expressed all round the globe, through mass migration and displacement, and through national and international battles for democracy – 1848 on a much greater scale, as it were, and with better chances of success this time round. Isn’t this why so many instinctively recognise him again, and even vote for him in radio phone-ins?

No doubt there is also more recognition of the economic sense contained in Das Kapital, in a globe transformed (and ridden) by capitalism. Attali is an economist, and doesn’t neglect that factor. However, the Marx that counts most is the one he emphasises more strongly: the breaker of rules, including his own, the refusenik of new dead generations erected in order to disguise or perpetuate the old ones, and make democracy safer for those in charge. ‘One finds here reasons for not repeating the past century’s mistakes, for not falling back on false certainties,’ is how he concludes. The humanist world spirit Attali depicts being lived out is one of resolute and unbreakable dissent, a recognition that absolute good is the source of absolute evil, and that theories are made to be contradicted by each successive turning of the human river, because ‘responsibilities are never causes, and people are not classes.’ The open society remains a great estuarial confluence ahead, owing less than many believe to the marshes and contra-flows of the modern middle ages.

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

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