Alison Wolf

March 17, 2006

There are 21 copies of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto on our library shelves and 13 copies of Capital . The shelves are pretty much where they stay. From time to time, I glance at how many have been borrowed. Five copies of the Manifesto are on loan and just two of Capital . That is about as high as it gets. German Ideology and Grundrisse do not seem to move at all.

Maybe a whole generation is devouring Marx on the web. But I doubt it. I teach undergraduates about the changing relationship between government and business, public and private sectors, and I tell them to read at least the Manifesto in full. But they find it dull and are bemused by the idea that it fired up millions of idealistic party members. The whole conceptual structure is completely unfamiliar to them, and it seems to have little relevance to their world.

In Testament of Youth , her autobiographical account of the First World War, Vera Brittain describes the gulf between those who, like her, had lived through the war as young adults, losing friends, family and their future, and those too young to have done so. Coming back to university after war service, she formed close relationships only with those who had had similar experiences. Younger students were simply too different.

I feel a bit like that with Communism. My generation, like that of my parents, was defined by where we stood on this. Did we loathe Communism with a passion, or were we instinctively on the Soviet Union's side because it was inspired by Marxism and anti-capitalist? Among today's young, we have a good deal of anti-capitalism (and even more anti-Americanism), but I don't think Marx enters into it much any more.

In my twenties, I taught in an East Coast city in the US. I remember a clean-cut and diligent student coming up to me after class.J "Now can I just make sure I've got this correct?" she asked. "The proletariat - that's the middle classes, right?"

For years I've used this incident to show that the US really is a different country. However, I think the last laugh may be on me and that, in this, as in so much else, my American students were the wave of the future. Just a few weeks ago, one of my English students expressed herself similarly confused. "Marx was against the middle classes then? But he did like the poor?"

Either way, it is not a matter of embracing or rejecting Marxist categories. The students I teach simply do not connect. Even our Eastern European students do not get excited either way. The Berlin Wall came down when they were small children; Communism really is past history.

So am I wasting students' time? Since China is ruled by a Communist Party, and Marxism was so significant in recent history, they certainly need to know something about it. But is it more important than knowing a bit about Napoleon, or 19th-century nationalism, or the beliefs of the great world religions? In the contemporary world, religion might seem more pressing.

At the moment, I am drawing up reading lists and course notes for a new masters degree in public-sector management. We want students to understand the theories and conceptual frameworks that underlie the fights over privatisation, pricing, choice, regulation and professional autonomy. Does Marx have anything useful to say about this?

Modern theories about the public sector are dominated by economics and, to a lesser extent, psychology (which teaches us what motivates people over and above the size of their pay packets). They also discuss the sort of management that occurs within all large organisations and continues to be the dominant approach of government the world over: namely command and control, decked out these days with targets, audits and inspectors.

You might think that Marx was relevant here given the number of socialist countries and especially the number that were also run by Communist parties. But I am not sure that he offers any insights into the workings of state bureaucracies. He said very little about them directly because he thought the state was going to wither away. And communist countries were actually very distinctive because of the role played by the party. To learn about the potential of "control" bureaucracies, and how to create a public-service ethos, there is far more to be gained from studying the imperial Chinese state. So it's the Ch'in emperor (259-210BC) over Karl Marx (1818-83).

I have decided my students are right to be bored by Marx. The undergraduates can have less in future, and I certainly won't add any to my groaning postgraduate reading lists. If abandoning the study of Marxism means we repeat history the "second time as farce" - well, there are worse things than farce in this world.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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