Karl Marx comes back - in an anorak

The information revolution may deliver the classless society Marx wanted, says Yvette Cooper
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The Independent Online
A gruff and squinting bearded man is peering cautiously out from behind his computer screen. Vilified for decades, blamed for the countless atrocities carried out in his name, he has been consigned by widespread agreement to the waste-paper basket of history. Yet Karl Marx could be about to make a comeback.

If politicians and academics were to meet old uncle Karl today, they might find they had more in common with him than they expected. What with political leaders chattering about a classless society, and economists trying to explain the huge technological and social changes that are underway, there are Marxian echoes all over the place.

To be taken seriously today, Mr Marx would have to ditch a lot of the communist nonsense along with the straggly beard. The proletarian revolution never materialised in the West. And all it achieved in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was oppressive government and failed economic experiments.

Nevertheless, Marx was a prolific writer, ranging through moral philosophy to theories of historical change, contradicting himself and confusing everyone else at intervals along the way. Sooner or later some of his ideas were bound to become fashionable again.

Take Marx's enthusiasm for a classless society. John Major apparently wants one. So, too, does new Labour. Tony Blair wants people to "fulfil their potential" - rather like Marx, who wanted human beings to overcome alienation and find fulfilment.

But wanting to overcome class privileges was never distinctive to Marx. After all, good liberals have always wanted people to have an equal chance in life, no matter who their parents were.

Marx - unlike others who shared his dreams - had a strong historical view about what shakes up the class structure. Economic change, driven by technological progress, brings new groups of people to the top. And curiously it is this theory of history which is popping up in strange places again today.

Remember what Marx said about the industrial revolution? New technology made possible mass production in the factories, at the same time that fewer and fewer people were needed to grow food on the land. As a result a new powerful class emerged: the factory owners or industrialists (Marx called them the capitalists). Where once, under feudalism, the landowners had been all powerful, they now came face to face with a bunch of business upstarts. Technological change, he said, would lead to a change in economic arrangements, which itself had knock-on effects for the class structure.

Now consider what economists and pundits are saying about modern economic and social change. Thanks to rapid technological change - computers, the Internet, stuff like that - what matters most is knowledge. As a result, a new class of powerful people is emerging: those who hold the knowledge.

The theory - complete with its Marxist undertones - seems to fit the facts. According to economists in the US, jobs are already polarising into well-paid, highly skilled employment and low-paid, low-skill temporary jobs on the other: the middle is hollowing out.

But these technological and economic changes also throw up another possibility: this could be our chance to smash up the old class system entirely. In Britain today, the sons and daughters of professional parents still have a much higher chance of getting a professional job in their turn than the children of builders or shop assistants. All this could be about to change.

If education and skills are what matter, then all a revolutionary has to do is make sure everyone gets a good education. All those Socialist Workers Party members who stand on street corners shouting in nasal tones should give up and become teachers instead. After all, it is considerably easier to redistribute economic power through education than through property. Take someone's property to give to others and they will scream theft. But we can give the low skilled more education without taking education away from anyone else.

In a knowledge-based, technological age of fierce global competition, countries who can't get their most talented people into the most difficult jobs will suffer. Never before has a system of class privilege been so economically inefficient.

It looks cheeringly as though Marx's theory of history is finally delivering the classless society he wanted without a drop of blood being shed.

If only this were the end of the story. Sadly, though, the idea that history is about to end in a happy and united nirvana may be no more plausible today than it was a century ago. We could easily fail to provide the unskilled with the education they need, and prop up class privileges instead. John Major seems to want to do exactly that, preferring to abolish inheritance tax to expanding education.

Tony Blair's three priorities - education, education and education - are far more promising. But even they may not be sufficient. The turning and churning of history could throw up new social divisions instead. Perhaps the important distinctions in future will be between the talented and the untalented. Or maybe the powerful people will be billionaires such as Bill Gates, keeping tight hold on the computer programmes we all use, and Rupert Murdoch, dominating the newspapers we read and the entertainment we watch.

But for the moment, we are speculating, just as Marx did 100 years ago. Fortunately for Karl Marx, whatever happens we are bound to be able to find something he said which predicts it. Whether it be a new classless world, achieved through education in the information age, or new social divisions, Marx had something to say about it.

But the chances are he won't get the credit whatever happens. None of our modern theorists or politicians want to be associated with the great man, no matter how similar their views might be. But even in their denials, they have something in common with Karl Marx, who famously said: "All I know is that I'm not a Marxist."