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Apr 30, 1998

Encounters: Grave debate

An investment banker pays homage on the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto

There may be many specters haunting Europe today but the specter of communism isn't one of them. The dramatic phrase of Marx and Engels no longer rings true. But does that mean that none of what follows rings true either?

It was March 15 of this year and I was relaxing after a splendid Sunday lunch in an imposing house in Highgate, the prosperous north London suburb. Veronica, my hostess, who is a high-powered commercial lawyer, had some work to catch up on so she suggested we go for a walk on nearby Hampstead Heath - we being Ted, her partner, and I.

As we were putting our coats on Ted said, 'Do you know what next Wednesday is?' I confessed I didn't so he explained, 'It's the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Why don't we pay the old boy a visit? After all, he doesn't get many visitors these days.'

So, outside the house, instead of turning left and heading toward the heath, we turned right and set off for Highgate Cemetery, the gloomy Victorian necropolis where Karl Marx is buried.

I was surprised that Ted would want to make such a pilgrimage. He is a senior economist with a leading investment bank and not noted for his left-wing views. 'I'm not much of a fan of Napoleon either but I've been to Les Invalides,' he said. 'And it's a pleasant enough walk.'

'You know Marx's problem?' he went on. 'It's that of most economists. Long on diagnoses; short on cures. In the 1970s, I worked for a government economic think-tank. We got better and better at measuring the problems but didn't have a clue as to what should be done about them. I always thought it was rather like being in a leaking boat. We were busy refining our calculations of how fast the water was coming in and when the boat would sink. But it might have been more helpful if we'd given up on analysis and started bailing.'

'So you think Marx was good at analysis?' I asked.

'Well, in the manifesto he foresaw the way global corporations would operate beyond the reach of national governments. And he's quite sound on the way capitalism compels nations to introduce so-called civilization and creates a world after its own image.'

We entered the cemetery and ambled past the graves of the heroes of a century or more ago: statesmen, soldiers, thinkers - most of them long forgotten.

'So what did he get wrong?' I asked.

'Well, he didn't really have a system of his own to replace the one he was criticizing. If you read the ten action points in the manifesto, they are a mish-mash of unconnected ideas like 'the improvement of soil', 'the abolition of child labor' and 'centralization of credit in the arms of the state by means of a national bank'. But he has no thoughts about the institutional framework by which these goals are to be achieved or about how to run things once they have been achieved.'

We arrived at the grave. The stone head of a bearded prophet stared down at us. Where once delegations from the eastern bloc had placed imposing wreaths, there was now a bunch of wilting spring flowers.

'So he still has some fans,' I said.

'Quite a few,' said Ted. 'In the US, the Union of Radical Political Economists has over a thousand members. Mind you, most of them are academics or work for government,' he added disparagingly.

We stood staring at the head for a while. Then Ted suggested we find a pub so we turned away and started retracing our steps.

'You know who finished communism?' I was sure he didn't mean Ronald Reagan but couldn't think of an alternative.

'Henry Ford,' he said emphatically. 'Marx made a lot of the abolition of property because in his day the proletariat had none. It was Ford who understood that they didn't want property abolished, they wanted it for themselves. So he paid his workers enough to turn them into consumers.'

'And so freedom triumphed,' I said.

'That too has its problems,' said Ted. 'Remember the words of Madame Roland.' I looked blank. 'Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.'

'But the good guys won,' I insisted.

'In some ways, yes' said Ted. 'I read a very interesting comment a couple of years back. You know that Marxists called for the arming of the proletariat. Well, if you think about it, it's been achieved. By the National Rifle Association. You see, the private sector really does deliver.'

A beer seemed very inviting.

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