Bettany Hughes on Marx: Genius of the Modern World — by Richard Abernethy

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Abernethy-Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Summary: Critical review of the recent BBC documentary on Marx, with particular attention to the flawed depiction of his later years as ones of bourgeois respectability. Link to broadcast is HERE   — Editors


On 16 June, the British television channel BBC4 broadcast a one-hour documentary by Bettany Hughes: Marx: Genius of the Modern World. This was one of a series of three about thinkers of the modern world, to be followed by profiles of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

Just to have a television programme about Marx is a rare event, and attests to the revival of interest in recent years. Bettany Hughes is not a Marxist and as a television historian much of her work has been about Ancient Greece. Her declared aim was to present the development of Marx’s thought in the context of his life and times. Her task was to present Marx to viewers, assuming no previous knowledge, all in the space of an hour.

I thought that her account of the young Marx was excellent and, by way of an interview with Paul Mason, we got a pretty good five minute explanation of Capital. But then, she got Marx’s later years all wrong.

Hughes guided us ably through Marx’s early life, with valuable insights into the social and political background of life in Germany in the years leading to the revolution of 1848. The influence of Hegel, the concept of alienation, even the concept of species-being, were all broached. The discussion of Capital managed to cover surplus value, exploitation and the tendency for the rate of profit to decline. There were some real nuggets of Marx scholarship, such as Terrell Carver explaining how the printed text of The German Ideology makes Engels’s original draft and Marx’s critical interjections on the manuscript look misleadingly like a single smooth narrative.

As for Marx’s life after Capital, Hughes said that the prospect of revolution had receded and Marx gradually settled down into a quiet and respectable life. This view completely ignored the Paris Commune – remarkable, as she had given considerable attention to the revolutions of 1848, including Paris. In fact, it was in the 1870s that Marx became “notorious” in Britain, for his defence of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France. Hughes made no mention, even in passing, of Marx’s late life studies of Russia, India, the Native Americans and other world societies.

I wonder whether Bettany Hughes simply did not get to research Marx’s last years properly, or is this an expression of her own ideological bias, expressing a desire to acknowledge Marx’s thought but in a form that blunts its revolutionary edge.

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