BBC reply on Marx
We wrote to Stephanie Flanders about her programme about Marx but received no reply. A Socialist Party member did, however, receive this reply to an individual letter
Dear Mr Maratty
Thank you for contacting us about Masters of Money and please accept our apologies for the delay in responding. I discussed your letter with the production team and the Executive Producer has requested that I forward you his response [below].
As you say, exploring Marx’s ideas within an hour is a huge challenge for television aimed at the uninitiated. This is especially the case when the programme is made with reference to the recent financial crisis, itself a very complex issue. I am very sorry that you didn’t enjoy this particular compression of the relevance of Marx’s thinking, and hope this letter explains some of the thinking behind the programme to your satisfaction.
The reason why we concentrated so heavily on the ‘can’t buy back’ idea is that the programme and series was framed around explaining the recent global financial crisis. The thinkers featured in the programme who spoke in support of Marx in some shape or form –Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, George Magnus, Raghuram Rajan, Tariq Ali, David Harvey and Martin Jacques –all highlighted this particular reading of Marx’s ideas as being the one most pertinent today, as did our academic advisors at the Open University. I am aware that there are many other Marxist or Marxian readings of our current situation, but given the constraints, this seemed the best one to focus on.
You object to our description of Marx having ‘next to no alternative laid out’. We believe this description to be fair and it is supported by a number of commentators and academics. As you say, not having a ‘blueprint’ and not having an ‘alternative’ are not one and the same, but if one asserts the existence of an alternative without describing in any great detail what that alternative might be and how it might work, it seems reasonable to say there is ‘next to no alternative laid out.’ We also explained in commentary and through interviews with Tariq Ali and Slavoj Zizek, why logically Marx might not have felt able to give a very detailed description of an alternative.
You write that there was no critical examination of ‘Marx and the so-called ‘Communist’ countries, the link between the two being taken pretty much for granted, with a couple of very minor caveats.’ We did make clear that Marx’s lack of a detailed blueprint should lead us to question his association with 20th century Communism, and we asserted that the ‘Communist countries…left Marx far behind’. That said, it was necessary to mention them as they were real world attempts to find an alternative to capitalism constructed by people who claimed to be following Marx’s thinking, and – as a result – audiences would expect any discussion of Marx, and any discussion of alternatives to capitalism, to mention them. We felt the overall direction of the programme – advancing Marx’s theories as being useful today and exploring some surprising aspects of his writings about capitalism –would have helped uninitiated audiences learn that there is far more to Marx than his association with 20th century Communism. Indeed this was a major thrust of the opening sequence.
You take issue with the use of the word ‘collapse’ to describe Marx’s descriptions of the end of capitalism. I hope I understand what you mean here. I think you are suggesting that capitalism does not end because it is inherently unworkable, but because through its development it inevitably creates the political and social conditions that lead to its overthrow, and that by using the word ‘collapse’ we underplay the importance and role of the proletariat. We did explain also the end of capitalism by saying: ‘He thought it would all get so bad that the workers would overthrow the system’, also in the opening titles we say ‘Karl Marx had the most radical advice of all: get rid of [capitalism]’, and we do discuss Marx’s thinking on the revolution that ends capitalism. Either way, Marx certainly did envisage a time when capitalism would no longer be and ‘collapse’ is a reasonable shorthand for Marx’s best known description of the end of the system in Capital.
Finally, you ask us why we didn’t consult your organisation. We contacted a wide range of commentators – both pro and anti-Marx but because of the constraints of time, we are not always able to contact everyone. We believe the people we spoke to enabled us to produce a good overview of the issues surrounding Marxian economics.
Thank you again for taking the time to write and I hope you would agree that while not offering anywhere near a complete appraisal of Marx’s ideas, it might have served as an engaging introduction.
I hope this addresses the points you raised and explains the production’s view. We’re grateful to you for watching and for taking the time to contact us.
Yours sincerely, Paul Kettle, BBC Audience Services
Reply: We can only speculate why Ms Flanders feels unable to respond to a direct invitation to discuss the statements made in her programme, while the Executive Producer on the contrary has supplied an interesting and considered response to one individual’s letter. Paul Kettle argues quite reasonably that one can’t really do justice to Marx in an hour, and it is true that one can find Marxist academics who still argue for underconsumptionist theory, even though it doesn’t make much sense. Nevertheless we have to object that the defence of the word ‘collapse’ borders on sophistry. The meaning of the word ‘collapse’ is pretty straightforward, and if one claims that Marx believed that capitalism would ‘collapse’ one is saying that Marx did not really believe that revolution was necessary to end it. Which is the precise opposite of the truth.– Editors.