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Marx in context

24 June 2016


DESTROYING religion would be an essential first step towards creat­ing an equitable world order. This was a central tenet of the Hegelian stu­dent drinking-club whose mem­bers included the hero of Bettany Hughes’s Marx: Genius of the mod­ern world (BBC4, Thurs­day of last week). As he matured, he modified his position, conclud­ing that it was merely an opium of the people, a conspiracy to damp down the jus­ti­fiable resentment of the proletariat.

Hughes set out to understand Marx not by means of intellectual analysis of his thought, but, rather, through seeing him in his personal context. Despite embracing the irritating tricks of documentary TV — walking earnestly down some meaningful alleyway, retreat­ing out of shot at the end of each paragraph — this was an illuminat­ing angle to take. I wonder whether she got the idea from contempor­ary biblical criticism (by “contem­porary” I mean “of the kind prac­tised for the past century”; for it is over such a period that we have appreciated that, unless keen atten­tion is paid to context, we have no hope of approaching the meaning of a text).

The autocratic repression of 1840s Prussia, the thwarted hopes of 1848 revolutions, the experience of the industrial working class witnessed by his friend Engels in Manchester — all these give per­spective to the development of Marx’s thought. Most helpfully, Hughes saw Marx’s greatness less as a creator of a single, unified thesis than in terms of continual exploration. Most of the distin­guished talking heads she con­sulted were more or less card-carrying Marxists, but she was more critical; by the time Das Kapital was completed, the rising prosperity of the proletariat meant that the historical imperative that its author was convinced would lead to revolution had, in fact, already passed on. A different set of cir­cum­stances drove the jugger­naut of the Russian Revolution, which claimed Marx as its inspira­tion.

One sign of this bourgeoisifica­tion of the workers was the wide­spread purchase of upright pianos. The final programme in Suzy Klein’s splendid series Revolu­tion and Romance: Musical masters of the 19th century (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) covered curiously re lated ground, as she demonstrated how the develop­ment of music mirrored and, in some cases, actually drove political and social upheavals.

A crucial aspect here, too, was industrialisation: instruments were improved and made more power­ful, and became cheaper — a competing opium of the masses. But by the end of the century, 10,000 people were crammed into the Royal Albert Hall to hear not a live performance, but a phono­graph. The future would be not living interaction, but disembodied reproduction.

Nothing fits our idyll of superior French culture quite like the family-run corner bistro, but BBC4’s crime thriller The Disap­pear­ance (Saturdays) has dispelled for ever our cosy view of such places. The one featured here, at least, is a focus of murder, a family feud, illicit affairs, and mutual suspicion. I am surprised that such a demolition of Continental icono­graphy was allowed to be shown during the run-up to the EU referendum.

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