A Christmas with Marx: Elmar Altvater (1938-2018)

Elmar Altvater, 2013. via YouTube.

First published in neues deutschland. Translated by Zachary King. 

In 1961, a student of sociology and economics in Munich had to spend his Christmas alone. There was no money to travel home to his parents, in the town of Kamen in Germany’s Ruhr district. Nor was there any money for heating. His father was a miner. Working in construction and as a couchette-car attendant didn’t allow him such extravagances. Nonetheless, this Christmas would be a formative one for 23-year old Elmar Altvater.  

He had been persuaded by a left-wing bookseller in Munich to read the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. The copy he read was even the brown-covered GDR edition. They were cheap to get. And it was this Christmas reading that provided the initial spark for Altvater’s extraordinary intellectual career. He had to learn a lesson right at the beginning: “Unfortunately, I discovered that Bertolt Brecht was right when he said understanding Marx is expensive. Because you have to buy a lot of literature to become a good Marxist,” said Altvater in a conversation with the magazine ZEIT Geschichte and Norbert Walter, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank, who died in 2012.

The fact that a self-described Marxist would be asked by a left-liberal weekly to talk to a representative of big capital says a lot about the position which the political scientist had established for himself. Altvater was — in the best sense of the word — an authority, not only in left-wing and Marxist circles, and his views were taken seriously even in circles with other class interests.

After studying in Munich, Altvater worked a research assistant at the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg from 1968 to 1970. It was an eventful time. Altvater’s reputation as a “Rudi Dutschke from Erlangen” is said to have preceded him. When the leaders of 68 had passed their zenith, Altvater moved to one of their centres: Berlin. He became involved in the “Socialist Assistant Cell”, founded the journal Probleme des Klassenkampfs (Problems of the Class Struggle) — today known as PROKLA — and was active in the German Socialist Bureau, which was based in Offenbach and was an important association for the New Left.

Ten years after first reading Marx, Altvater became Professor of Political Economy at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin. He would remain there until his retirement in 2004. Altvater belongs, as the journalist Mathias Greffrath once wrote, to the 1968 “generation of assistants," who discovered Marx’s work for themselves and “liberated historical materialism from its Stalinist distortions and ‘reconstructed’ its essence, the critique of political economy, with — one is tempted to say German — thoroughness”.

This reconstruction was reflected in Altvater’s work by his steady output of books. Grenzen der Globalisierung (The Limits of Globalisation), published together with Birgit Mahnkopf in 1996, is a definitive work in globalisation critique and has gone through seven editions.

Altvater’s intellectual curiosity and his regular trips to South America ensured that he always took up new topics. In his approach, of course, he remained committed to Marxian method. He thus devoted himself to questions of capitalist development, state theory, development policy as well as the debt and financial crisis, and thought about the connection between economics and ecology. In the latter area in particular he set the standard for the eco-Marxist and eco-socialist discussion, which is conducted more intensely in the English-speaking world than in Germany. “The ecological question is a social question and the social question can only be adequately addressed today as an ecological question”, he wrote in 1992 in Der Preis des Wohlstands (The Price of Prosperity).

Insofar as the traditional socialist left accepted this insight at all, it has only been as a matter of paying lip service. Even today the left treats the social and the ecological as separate thoughts. Marxists who talk about the development of productive forces and Keynesian trade unionists calling for government stimulus packages alike forget that the forces of production and destruction can turn into one another, and that more growth means more natural consumption and environmental pollution. In Altvater’s words, “Economic processes are the transformations of materials and energy. These transformations are irreversible and do not — as is assumed in economic theory — run in a circular fashion.”

Altvater was also politically involved. At first a member of the SPD, he was later involved in the founding of the German Green Party in the early 1980s. The Green’s bourgeoisification was not reason enough for him to leave the party. He could have lived and tried to fight this process from the inside, as he said in an interview. He only left the party when the Greens went along with the war in Afghanistan. The delegates “let Fischer [one-time leading figure in the Greens and former German Foreign Minister] lead them by the nose through the whole circus. And hardly anyone felt any pain,” said Altvater. In 2007 — so to speak as his last recourse — he joined Die Linke, where he was active in the programme commission. In addition to his party involvement, he also took part in Attac. “You have to dance at both weddings — politics and civil society," he once said.

He predicted “the end of capitalism as we know it” in his 2005 book of the same name. This was clairvoyant. The global financial crisis broke out three years later with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy: a crisis that turned into a world economic crisis. It did not come as a surprise to Altvater. The financialisation of capitalism and its vulnerability to crisis have always been the subject of his analyses.

In his collection of interviews with Raul Zelik — which is also an excellent primer to Altvater’s thinking — he calls this the decisive point for “gauging utopia”: “We — the nine billion that we will soon become — can all have a decent life, but for that to happen we have to do something, and at the same time, cease doing a great deal. We have to transform the earth, put it in ecological order, so to speak.” What did he mean by that? First, the farewell to fossil fuels and the transition to a socialism of the 21st century. And the socialism he envisioned must be one powered “by solar, democracy and solidarity."

Now Elmar Altvater has died in Berlin at the age of 79 — on the first of May in the year of Karl Marx. The left, whether Marxist or something less, has lost one of its world’s brightest thinkers.