It turns out Eric Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist Party. Who'da thunk it? The death of the cuddly historian coincided with Stephanie Flanders' TV think-piece on Marx, following her earlier musings on Keynes and Hayek. The common theme is the vexed issue of Marxism, which has enjoyed something of an intellectual resurgence since the financial crisis, though one that has been building since the contrarian starting pistol was fired in 1989.
Hobsbawm the historian is a relatively poor subject for a critique of Marxism as the bulk of his work is firmly in the English tradition of Macaulay, Trevelyan and AJP Taylor: panoptic, well-written, essentially Enlightenment Whig. His Age of ... tetralogy is an excellent survey, but his more interesting work is to be found in The Invention of Tradition and the studies of marginal, working class communities, which he and EP Thompson pioneered in the 1960s. The critique therefore focuses on his long membership of the CPGB, notably after the Hungarian Rising of 1956 when many other members quit, and his statements to the effect that he did not regret his commitment. Some of this was simple truculence, a refusal to condemn his own past, some a rather callous mischief. He is dead now, so he isn't going to apologise, any more than Jimmy Saville is. Of course, that won't stop the debate about how he got away with it, or whether he was justified at all. Hobsbawm I mean, not Saville. The "outing" of the latter as an abuser has prompted many erstwhile colleagues to admit his behaviour was well known. Much the same happened when Jonathan King got nicked, I recall. While we shouldn't succumb to crass stereotypes, I can't have been the only teenager watching TOTP in the 70s thinking "that bloke looks well dodgy". I mean both Saville and King.
The Flanders series has been rather frustrating. The producers presumably fear that a programme about ideas will be boring if it has too many ideas, so we get the usual sequence of pointless location shots and human interest marginalia. If Keynes hadn't been an economist, we wouldn't be interested in his involvement with the Bloomsbury Group or his chairmanship of the Arts Council, so why burden us with it now? Hayek was a trickier TV subject, because the man was so personally boring and spent most of his life doing very little outside academia. A quick shufty at his collection of gongs, and a dull letter from Margaret Thatcher, made up the highlights. Marx, by contrast, was a dream gig, allowing Flanders to open with contemporaneous comments about the arrival on British shores of the most dangerous man in Europe, a sort of reverse Abu Hamza. We got the usual tropes of student excess, luxuriant facial hair, meetings in London pubs, retirement to Hampstead respectability, and Tankies singing the Internationale in Highgate Cemetery.
As others have already noted, Flanders skipped a lot of the interesting ideas in Marx and misinterpreted others, focusing on simplistic class antagonism and wages (i.e. demand management). There was one shot, presumably from a Soviet propaganda film, of a frock-coated, top-hatted plutocrat wielding a whip and carrying a sub-machinegun. What larks. At one point, brandishing a bundle of sticks, it looked like she was about to broach the theory of surplus value, but she copped out with (something like) "if you really want to know, you can plough through hundreds of pages yourself". The writings of Keynes, which are more technical and challenging, did not get this high-handed treatment. I began to get the sense that the BBC were worried they might be criticised for giving airtime to "the most dangerous man in Europe". This probably explained their choice of various right-wing polemicists, like Madsen Pirie, who added nothing to an understanding of Marx's ideas, but meant they were inside the tent pissing out. She even got Peter Hitchens on to demonstrate hegemony: he thought an alternative to capitalism was as conceivable as an alternative to weather.
Despite some self-mockery, in the form of a skit on the Marxist Broadcasting Corporation (which probably shot the Daily Mail's fox), the programme devoted a lot of time to linking Marx and the gulags, while insisting that there was of course no such direct link. We got tours of East German jails, footage of marches in Red Square, and the storming of the Winter Palace. Capital was published 3 years before Lenin was born. You'd think they'd give it a rest. After all, no one blames Hobsbawm's The Forward March of Labour Halted for Tony Blair and Iraq, though you might find it easier to make the case. I don't recall Hayek's visit to Chile and his supportive words for the murderous Pinochet regime being similarly foregrounded by Flanders, though I may have blinked.
The whole Masters of Money series was oddly lacking because it tried to fillet the three thinkers' ideas in terms of their usefulness in understanding the current crisis. This inevitably gave Keynes the edge, but that in turn meant there was no real discussion as to why the proponents of austerity were in power, or why neoliberalism remains hegemonic. It also failed to address the yawning gap between free markets and capitalism, and the conflicts between corporations and spontaneous order, which is where Hayek might have been useful, and it didn't get to the nub of Marx's point that capitalism is insatiable. The externality of environmental damage was conspicuous by its absence. This unstable dynamic is ultimately the product of human nature: curious, enterprising, footloose, hedonic. Without it we'd still be sitting under trees eating raw meat. But this is also what makes capitalism prone to crisis, and equally capable of overcoming crisis through change and reinvention, until the next crisis. The centrality of equilibrium as a concept in capitalist thought, and its elevation to a quasi-spiritual role (the invisible hand as Holy Ghost), is testament to the fear of crisis as a manifestation of a lack of control. The conclusion of the series appears to be that we must manage capitalism better: "there is no alternative". Sound familiar?