He Thinks Therefore Michael Gove Is Not Voting Marx

 by Martin Belam, 23 June 2005

Yesterday there were yet more column inches about the In Our Time Greatest Philosopher vote. Michael Gove in The Times wrote an entertaining piece called "I think therefore I am not voting Marx No 1".

There aren't many places where Marxism still wins you elections. North Korea and Zimbabwe keep the flame of revolution alive, but they are not particularly good at doing the same for their citizens. Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe certainly know how to target uncommitted voters - with terror, famine and violence. But it would probably be erring on the side of generosity to describe either as popular darlings.

There is, however, one place where Marxism is storming to victory in an open ballot. On Radio 4.

One of the station's finest programmes, In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, is running a poll to find the nation's favourite philosopher. Borrowing some of the techniques, although none of the razzmatazz , of BBC television's quest for the nation's greatest Briton, Radio 4 has asked a variety of advocates to put the case for great thinkers, from Socrates to Heidegger. Whereas BBC One had Jeremy Clarkson putting the case for Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Rosie Boycott arguing for Diana, Princess of Wales, as our greatest Briton, Radio 4 has Richard Sorabji standing up for Aristotle,and Robert Kaplan leading the cheering for Rene Descartes. As one can see,we are talking intellectuals here. Which is why, troubling as it may be for some of us, it shouldn't be too surprising that the philosopher running away with the race at the moment is Karl Marx.

The piece constructs an argument that since Marxism values thought and intellectualism over either hard graft or greed it is naturally attractive to academics who can't understand why "they don't enjoy the worldly success, or esteem, of those coarser souls who devote themselves to the grubby business of commerce and exchange".

I enjoyed it, and it was a welcome change to see the apparent popularity of Marx in the vote being pinned on intellectuals rather than some leftwing conspiracy within the BBC.

When searching The Times site to find the online version I came across for the first time the article that The Sunday Times had published this weekend gone - "Karl Marx takes lead in BBC poll of philosophers". This at least explained one thing. My team always keep the progress of this kind of vote strictly embargoed, and so I didn't understand where the flurry of press about Marx allegedly leading had come from. Surely newspaper columnists can't all subscribe to the In Our Time newsletter where Melvyn Bragg had mentioned it?

The Sunday Times claimed to have an astonishing array of detail about the results, as Arts Editor Richard Brooks wrote:

His influence may have waned on the global political stage, but Karl Marx seems certain to be voted the world's greatest philosopher in a new poll.

He is racing ahead of rivals two weeks before voting ends in the poll of listeners to the BBC Radio 4 discussion programme In Our Time.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the British philosopher who was born in Austria, is lying second after almost a fortnight of voting. David Hume, the Scottish radical sceptic, is third, followed by Plato and Immanuel Kant.

The last three places on the 20-strong all-male shortlist, whittled down from a much wider field, go to Martin Heidegger, the 20th-century German, Epicurus, the ancient Greek, and, in last place, Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman.

I do like the fact that somehow coming 'last' infers Thomas Hobbes was a failure, with him only apparently being the 20th most brilliant mind in human history according to Radio 4 listeners

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