Flow of Ideas
Wolf on Marx Without Sparks

Glenn Rikowski, London, 27th March 2006


In the ‘Opinion’ section of the Times Higher Education Supplement of 17th March, Alison Wolf (2006) presented an article that portrayed Marx without sparks: a washed-up, irrelevant and boring old thinker. Apparently, Wolf’s students, at King’s College London, think similarly to her: they view The Communist Manifesto as peripheral to their lives.

Yet Wolf’s rendition of Marx sits oddly with the results of a poll undertaken by BBC Radio 4 in the summer of 2005, which saw Karl Marx as the most ‘revered philosopher’ (Seddon, 2005) of the twentieth century – even though he died in 1883. He got 28% of the total vote (Higgins, 2005). Furthermore, a week before Wolf’s article, Eric Hobsbawm and Jacques Attali (who had once been an international banker), in a dialogue in the New Statesman, declared Marx to be the ‘guru of globalisation’, with clear relevance to our times (see Hobsbawm and Attali, 2006).

In my view, Wolf (2006) has attempted to undermine Marx’s significance for our times on the basis of very flimsy evidence. This short article critiques her view of Marx and Marxism.

On the Library Shelves

First, Wolf alerts us to the fact that in King’s College London library only 5 out of 21 copies of The Communist Manifesto were not on the shelf (and presumably being used) and only 2 out of 13 copies of Capital were not on the shelf when she checked them out. Yet as every librarian knows it is not necessarily whether books are on the shelf that matters, but how often they are stamped out on the issue form that really counts. Wolf does not give the reader data on this.

Secondly, even at face value the data provided by Wolf might not be that damning for Marx’s texts. I was quietly pleased with the fact that 5 out of 21 copies of the Manifesto were out on loan. Wolf should have compared these data with those for other great thinkers: what was the score for Adam Smith? For Hegel? Or, for Weber, Durkheim or Darwin? Maybe students at King’s College London are not into any of these great and dead thinkers. Marx might not be a special case.

No Marx on the Internet?

Wolf ponders whether: “Maybe a whole generation is devouring Marx on the web. But I doubt it”. Here, Wolf treads on even slipperier ground. Interestingly, Eric Hobsbawm had checked out what happens when “Marx” is inserted into Google (see Hobsbawm and Attali, 2006, p.28) and found that there were 39 million entries. Hobsbawm noted:

“He is much the largest of the great international presences [on Google], exceeded only by Charles Darwin and Adam Smith” (Ibid.).

Of course, perhaps today’s young people are not devouring this wealth of information on Marx on the Internet. Maybe it’s just people of my generation and older that are checking out this massive e-material on Marx. I have no data relevant to this proposition; but then neither does Wolf appear to have any evidence to support her assertion that the young are not clicking into Marx on the Internet.

Thumbs Down from Students

Wolf’s assertion that students find Marx and his works dull and that they cannot relate to him can be countered by the fact that others have taught Marx to enthusiastic students showing a thirst for his ideas. I know a number of people who are teaching Marx to students who find him relevant to their lives and to events in the world today. In one area that Wolf has written on, education (Wolf, 2002), Robin Small (2005), for example, has produced a wonderful book about Marx’s contribution to the analysis of education that clearly has relevance to what is going on in education today.

One hazards a guess that perhaps Marx is taught by Wolf in an unsympathetic way that turns off her students. In contrast, Tony Dennis (2006), in a Letter of Reply to Wolf in this week’s Times Higher Education Supplement, notes:

“Some of the access students I teach have no difficulty in relating Marx’s insights about the links between property and power to their own experiences at work or in the wider community” (2006).

In the past, I have taught Marx to A-level students who have found him interesting and relevant to their lives, and David Margolies (2006) reports that his English Literature students find Marx useful.

The Anti-capitalist Movement and the Absence of Marx

Wolf argues that young people are engaged with the anti-capitalist movement but that ‘I don’t think Marx enters into it much any more’ (Wolf, 2006). Wolf poses a genuine issue here: Marx’s separation from the anti-capitalist movement. Now, from my own experience I have found a reluctance to want to bring Marx into the analysis of the anti-capitalist movement in general and in terms of education struggles in particular. But these people who dissuade me from using Marx are not the youth that Wolf speaks of, but so-called radical and Left educators. A number of people have discouraged me from using Marx to understand educational phenomena. The educational Left in the UK is very ambivalent about Marx’s relevance for education struggles today. One of the main aims of the Volumizer is to indicate Marx’s relevance for understanding developments in education and education policy in contemporary society.

In terms of young people engaged in the anti-capitalist movement not being interested in Marx, the recent collection of writings on the G8 meeting of 2005 (Harvie, Milburn, Trott and Watts, 2005) indicates that Wolf’s assertion needs some justification. The many chapters in this book bring together activist strategies, and political, economic and social analysis with critique of the G8 and all it stands for. Marxist analysis and critique underpins many of the chapters.

Finally, if Wolf is correct, and the anti-capitalist movement lacks reference to Marx and Marxist analysis, then for me, that is one of its weaknesses. In my Seattle booklet (Rikowski, 2001) I indicated ways in which Marx and Marxism could engage with the anti-capitalist movement. Again, I was criticised by some on the educational Left (e.g. Doug Holly, Patrick Ainley) for seeking to bring about this dialogue.

Wolf’s Poor Marx and the Denigration of Marx’s Relevance

Where Wolf is most clearly wrong is when she argues that on issues such as privatization, pricing, choice, regulation and professional autonomy that Marx has nothing to say. I have used Marx to try to understand what I have called the ‘business takeover of schools’ and the phenomenon of parental choice linked to the marketisation of education. The Volumizer has played a role in this. It seems that Wolf is just ignorant of, or wilfully avoids, Marxist scholarship in these fields. As David Margolies (2006) Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement notes: “Alison Wolf’s view of Marx’s faded relevance is too narrow”.

She craftily takes Marx to task for not being a leading theorist on state bureaucracies – on the basis that Marx’s writings formed the underpinnings for the ‘communist’ states of Eastern Europe. There is double trouble for Marx here. First, Wolf assumes Marx was responsible for the Stalinist and rotten states of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, as his ideas nurtured these states then, for Wolf, he should have some thing useful to say about them. Yet he does not! Marx is hopeless!

There are a number of errors in Wolf’s ‘thinking’. She equates Marx with Marxism (Bruff, 2006) – when Marx himself said that ‘I am no Marxist’ when faced with some of the views of his ‘followers’. Secondly, the connections between Marx’s views and Stalinism and the nature of the Eastern Bloc are airily assumed. But thirdly, Marx was a critic (while also being an admirer in some ways) of capitalist society. Marx’s great work was about capital, not state bureaucracies.

But perhaps Wolf is not interested in understanding capital and capitalism. Yet she is a Professor of Public Management, and this ‘public management’ exists in capitalist society. I leave Wolf to work her way out of the huge hole in which she has dug herself.

Conclusion: Marx without Sparks

Wolf (2006) has painted a picture of a faded, jaded and dated Marx, shunned by students and the anti-capitalist movement. His works can be consigned to the dustbin. But if Marx is so useless for analysing phenomena in contemporary society why did Wolf bother to write her article? Ian Bruff (2006) has an answer which, for me, makes sense:

“…she has an agenda that aims to discredit critical theories in general and Marxism in particular” (Bruff, 2006).

Or it could be, notes Bruff, that she does not know much about Marxism. Perhaps she does not want to know about Marxism, and hopes that others won’t want to know either – though only she can enlighten us.

Alison Wolf’s article is one of a long line of such articles declaring Marx to be “dead”: typical examples include Gove (2005) and Gray (2006). In the process of presenting her views on Marx’s relevance, Wolf reveals more about her own ideas and outlook on life than she does about Marx.


Bruff, I. (2006) Manifesto for Marx, Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, 24th March, p.17.

Dennis, T. (2006) Manifesto for Marx, Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, 24th March, p.17.

Gove, M. (2005) I think therefore I am not voting Marx No 1, The Times, 22nd June, p.19.

Gray, J. (2006) The red king is dead, long live the king, Times Higher Education Supplement, 13th January, p.18.

Harvie, D., Milburn, K., Trott, B. & Watts, D. (2005) Shut Them Down! The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements, New York: Autonomedia.

Higgins, C. (2005) Marx voted top thinker, The Guardian, 14th September, p.9.

Hobsbawm, E. & Attali, J. (2006) The New Globalisation Guru, New Statesman, 13th March, pp.28-29.

Margolies, D. (2006) Manifesto for Marx, Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, 24th March, p.17.

Rikowski, G. (2001) The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education, London: Tufnell Press.

Seddon, M. (2005) Kapital gain, The Guardian, 14th July, p.23.

Small, R. (2005) Marx and Education, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth, London: Penguin Books.

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