TV Review from the January 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Years ago Channel Four used to run a much acclaimed (and for that matter, much derided by some) late-night live discussion programme on Saturdays called After Dark. For those who didn't see it, it was an open-ended programme whereby seven or eight invited guests sat in comfy leather chairs discussing matters of grave importance or, sometimes, of the utmost triviality. It typically ran for three or four hours, until the guests started repeating themselves, somebody got upset or somebody else got drunk (in this respect at least it was just like real life).
On Saturday 29 November Channel Four began a new mini-series of studio discussions called the Big If . . . Discussing the same sort of topics as After Dark typically addressed, and in the same late Saturday night slot, it lasts only an hour and is heavily edited in parts. Given the contributions made in the first programme, however, this is entirely understandable.
The subject matter, interestingly enough; was What If Marx Was Right? Frankly, this is a topic which no TV programme can hope to cover adequately in an hour minus two advertising breaks, and needless to say, this programme did not cover it adequately at all.
It would seem a bit of a prerequisite that the studio guests should be familiar with the subject under discussion. Would they ask someone who knew nothing about religion to discuss ecumenical faith? Someone who hadn't been to school and couldn't read and write to discuss issues affecting modern education! Of course not. But that didn't stop them inviting a couple of guests onto this programme who had quite evidently never read a word of Karl Marx in them life.
One particular guest claimed that technology was solving most of capitalism's problems, even though he didn't seem to think there was such a thing as capitalism anyway and who didn't care much about its problems and those who suffered because of them. If he had read anything at all written by Marx he disguised it brilliantly. Another guest— an historian of sorts—was able to demonstrate that he knew lots about the old dictatorship in Soviet Russia but next to nothing about Marx or genuine socialism.
And then there was Paul Foot of the SWP. He is, as my mother would say, a nice man, but that alone does not make him a socialist, and his attempts to defend state planning and control through weasel words and euphemisms were transparent and reprehensible. For such a lucid writer and journalist he often demonstrated a peculiar inability to explain concepts basic to the Marxian position in clear, unambiguous terms, and this despite the fact that he has written some books on the subject which are at least in part, not all that bad. He had been little better on the previous week's Question Time.
Another guest on the panel was Susan George,, famous for her books on Third World poverty andl development politics. Her interventions criticising the market economy were more lucid and telling, but her prescription for its, supersession vague and inoffensive, about people alII over the planet already “doing things for themselves”, whatever that means. (For one thing it carries the unhelpfuI connotation that it stands opposed to the idea off people sometimes doing things for others).
The token neo-Marxist psychologist present provided a good coherent critique of the capitalist economy without suggesting anything nearly as coherent by way of replacement for it. It was left to journalist Charlotte Raven to hit the nail on the head, repeatedly. Raven took the closest thing on offer to a Marxist position and as a result was somewhat marginalised in the discussion. She was, nevertheless, the only guest to state openly that capitalism could not be reformed to work in the interests of the majority, that it was past its sell-by-date in all its various forms and incarnations and should be replaced by something which sounded fairly close to genuine socialism. We can only hope that her interventions are not going to harm her journalistic career with the Sunday newspapers.
Hopefully the programme might have given her a few ideas for articles. One could be on the same theme as the programme itself—was Marx right? Even more importantly, are those who stand in the Marxian tradition right today when we say along with him that capitalism is a system dependent for its survival on the exploitation of the many by the few, that it is a system which creates artificial scarcity, which is racked by periodic world crises and wars and which must be overthrown through democratic socialist revolution? And if Marx's prescription of a moneyless, stateless world community is not the way forward, what is? After she has written it she might post a copy of her article to the other panellists who will then be better informed in case they should be asked to appear on any such programme again.