- Known as the father of communism, the 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx was a political economist, and a revolutionary. He addressed a wide range of issues, but is most famous for his analysis of history. Marx believed that Capitalism would be replaced by Socialism which in turn would bring upon Communism. He was given added impetus by the victory of the Marxist Bolsheviks in the Russian October Revolution.
- Throughout during the last hundred years
Marx has been a source of tremendous inspiration in the fight for a just society. In all the fields of knowledge one can trace his influence. Commemorating bicentennial birth anniversary of Marx, let’s rethink his ideas to understand the economic and political inequality of our times.
A twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London, on 21 February, 1848, by a group of German-born revolutionary socialists known as the Communist League. It claimed that with the innovations of the railroad, the steamship the telegraph and so many other innovations and new developments, unthinkable productive forces particularly through free trade, had lowered the prices making the planet more worldly-wise and multicultural. Goods and ideas now circulated everywhere.
But the new modes of production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth. The problem was that the wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent of the population possessed all of the property while the other ninety per cent virtually owned n
othing. As a result there were just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labour to them. In those circumstances it looked inevitable that one day workers all over the globe would rise up and overthrow the system. The person who anticipated this was a German philosopher Karl Marx, and the pamphlet that proclaimed it was “The Communist Manifesto.” The Manifesto was written for the Communist League, a political party based in England, the first international communist organisation. It was a call to action.
[According to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent.]
Karl Marx’s real mission of life was to contribute to overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being. Being an enlightened thinker he wanted a world that was rational and transparent, and in which human beings have to be liberated from the control of external forces. Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. Hence the production and the degree of economic development attained by a given people form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion must be explained, instead of vice versa.
To materialize their dream, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained the goals of Communism, as well as the theory underlying this movement in the Communist Manifesto. It argues that class struggles or the exploitation of one class by another have been the motivating force behind all historical developments. Class relationships are defined by that particular period’s means of production. Then a revolution occurs and a new class emerges as the ruling one. This process represents the “march of history”.
When Marx and Engels declared that all history had been the history of class struggle, they were arguing that struggle for control of society’s goods was the greatest single engine of social change. That change might be progressive or reactionary: the question came down to politics and the balance of social and political forces in a given society at a given time, as Marx famously put the matter in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Secondly, the manifesto argues that the problem with Capitalism is that it is irrational. Its commitment to the logic of capital accumulation and profit maximization makes it so. It takes on even greater force in the environmental destruction on a global level. Capitalism aggressively pursues policies that make no sense from the standpoint of humanity, economic sanity, and nature. Further, Capital fails to make rational use of the machines, censures whole generation to deprivation, underemployment and zero real leisure from the pursuit of employment and general survival. As a result of their greed and callousness to commodify their fellow human beings, even the capitalists themselves live in a kind of permanent fear.
So, first task according to the Manifesto has been to organize politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of Capitalism. Though Marx never wrote a book or even an essay on communism, yet his vision of Communism included: “Abolition of property and land and application of all rents of land to public purposes; A heavy progressive or graduated income tax; Abolition of all right to inheritance; Confiscation of all property of all emigrants and rebels; Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state; Free education for all children in public schools and abolition of children’s factory labour, etc.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party: Chapter 2)
Adopting the path of Communism, Marx believed that rift between those who produce and those who own the instruments of production would certainly be eliminated. And the atmosphere of liberty, happiness, autonomy, individuality and self-guided development would prevail.
But, Marx and Engels would have regretted not to anticipate the manifesto’s impact on the forthcoming communist parties: how workers’ states would become increasingly totalitarian in their response to capitalist state aggression; and also how in their response to the fear of Communism, these Capitalist states would grow and look increasingly civilized. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution and then the Second World War, the fear of communism forced capitalist regimes to embrace pension schemes, national health services, increase of minimum wages and even the idea of making the rich pay for the poor.
Also, Marx had very little to say about how the business of life would be conducted in a communist Society and this turned out to be a serious problem for regimes trying to put communism into practice. He thought that our concepts, values, and beliefs all arise out of the conditions of our own time, which means that it’s hard to know what lies on the other side of historical change. In theory, after the revolution, everything will be “up for grabs”—which has been the great dream of leftist radicalism ever since. But, Marx was clearer about what a communist society would not have. There would be no class system, no private property, no individual rights, and no state (which he called “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”). The state, in the form of the Party, proved to be one bourgeois concept that twentieth-century Communist regimes found impossible to outdo.
Marx being a true revolutionary, all of his work was written in the service of the revolution. After his death, in his name, communist revolutions did come to pass—not exactly where or how he imagined they would. But by the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed to be Marxist. This really matters a lot, because one of Marx’s key principles was that theory must always be united with practice. That’s the point of his famous ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx was not saying that philosophy is irrelevant; he meant that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, and they can be solved only by changing those conditions—by remaking the world. And Marx’s ideas were used to remake the world. Apart from his loyal and lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, almost no one would have guessed, in 1883, the year Marx died, at the age of sixty-four, how influential he would become. Though, only eleven people showed up for the funeral.
One reason for Marx’s relative obscurity is that only toward the end of his life did movements to improve conditions for workers started making gains in Europe and the United States. Those movements were reformist rather than revolutionary, they were not Marxists. With the growth of the labour movement came excitement about socialist thought and, with that, an interest in Marx.
If Vladimir Lenin had not arrived in Petrograd in 1917 and taken charge of the Russian Revolution, Marx would probably be known today as “a not very important nineteenth-century philosopher, sociologist, economist, and political theorist.” The Russian Revolution made the world take Marx’s criticism of capitalism seriously. After 1917, communism was no longer a day-dreaming.
Here, one would be astonished to know that for the books Marx is so famous today, all over the world, also were not exactly the best-sellers. “The Communist Manifesto” vanished almost as soon as it was published and remained out of print for twenty-four years; “Capital” was ignored when the first volume came out in 1867. After four years, it had sold a thousand copies, and it was not translated into English until 1886 (In his book ‘Capital’ he saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives.). The second and third volumes of “Capital” were published after Marx had died; The “Theses on Feuerbach,” which Marx wrote in 1845, was not discovered until 1888; “The German Ideology,” was first published in 1932; the book entitled the “Grundrisse” remained unpublished until 1939. The unfinished Paris manuscripts did not appear in English until 1959. In Marx’s own lifetime, the work that finally brought him attention was a 35-page pamphlet called “The Civil War in France,” published in 1871, in which he hailed the short-lived and violently suppressed Paris Commune as “the glorious harbinger of a new”—that is, communist—“society.”
Especially, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bureaucratic regime of the erstwhile USSR in 1989, discussion is going on many Marxist concepts which were once regarded as absolute truths. Radical thinkers have been struggling to locate the fuses that have somehow undermined seemingly indestructible structure of Marx’s thought and sentiment across the globe.
No doubt, all forecasts of Marx have not proved flawless, yet it’s true that without the Marxian methodology a proper understanding of the development of society and history wouldn’t be possible. Marx wrote “Philosopher’s have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point is to change it.” And he changed the world, the way he wanted it to be.
Actually, Marx divided the world in two camps; those who place all their hopes in him and those who hate him. At one time, Marx’s dream of classless society touched millions and millions of people, and drew some of the finest minds of 20th century in its orbit. Every social movement in the last 100 years has also been influenced by his works. He made possible what was impossible — freedom from the exploitation of man by man.
However, Marx refuses to speculate in detail the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realization of the pre-determined moral ideal.
Many of his expectations about the future course of the revolutionary movement have, so far, didn’t materialize.
For an example, Marx and his ideas are often dismissed as leading to Stalinism and the gulag. But this is an astonishingly ignorant and unhistorical view to take. In his writing and his career, Marx was hostile to the established authorities of the day, and nothing in his writings on politics or economics presages the command economy created in Russia during the effort to make “socialism in one country” under Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. If the efforts of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks ran into trouble shockingly soon after the revolution of October 1917, this was due to so many factors. Russia in 1917 was a mix of feudal imperial, emerging industrial giant, and swollen bureaucracy. Most of its population consisted of illiterate peasants. A Marxist revolution aimed at a socialist society was always going to struggle in such a situation, and struggle it did: civil war, invasion by multiple foreign powers, famine, economic and military collapse. For the great historian Isaac Deutscher, the situation in Russia “meant that the first and so far the only attempt to build socialism would have to be undertaken in the worst possible conditions, without the advantages of an intensive international division of labour, without the fertilising influence of old and complex cultural traditions, in an environment of such staggering material and cultural poverty, primitiveness and crudity as would tend to mar or warp the very striving for socialism”.
Trotsky has also impressed that a nationalised planned economy needs democracy. Without the democratic control and administration of the working class, a regime of nationalisation and planning would inevitably seize up at a certain point, especially in a modern, sophisticated and complex economy. This fact was graphically reflected in the falling rate of growth of the Soviet economy since the early 1970s.
In the words of Conor McCarthy, “In any case Marx himself was hostile to rigid dogma and a trenchant critic of arbitrary authority. He believed in the values of free speech, democratic accountability and he criticized the German Social Democrats of his own time for their state-worship. He argued that common ownership of land should be a voluntary innovation, not a state-driven top-down policy.” (Dublin Review of Books, Issue 99, April 2018)
Now, if we reconsider what Marx was really about, the first thing to remember is that Marx was an economic critic and philosopher, not a prophet. What he has principally left behind is a critical analysis of capitalism. As regards Marxism, both Marx and Lenin have been emphasizing the need for continuously testing theory on the basis of actual life, of practice, and of updating it, which would include amending, and even discarding, some theoretical postulates.
Therefore, Marx cannot be expected to solve all problems, many of which have appeared subsequently. Theory also needs to be updated taking into account the development of science and technology of the day. As we know, Marx didn’t suck his theories out of his thumb. His philosophical, economic, and social theories were in many important respects developed from giants such as the economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo; and the philosophers Friedrich Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach who preceded him. This point needs emphasis because we have too often in the past closed our minds to the researchers and the writings of thinkers who somehow differ to Marxian ideology.
Hence, something was wrong with the ‘communist ideology in action’ was felt by scores of Russian and European thinkers all through the Stalinist period. And some novelists like Arthur Koestler , George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who were written off as imperialist agents) had the intellectual integrity and courage even at the height of the horrors to describe evils, amounting to de-humanization , of the system in such striking metaphors as Darkness at Noon , Animal Farm , and The Cancer Ward.
Yes, at times, the Marxian theory which in principal celebrates all the freedoms of the human personality couldn’t find the skills and the instruments to translate them into reality. And as the reality became unbearable, at places, it settled sadly for the machinery of oppression.
In the 21st century, the most important question that Marxism confronts has been the question of revolutionary organization. How to translate the framework of Marxism into real-life struggles is probably the greatest challenge of today and the most important yardstick for judging the relevance of Marxism.
Marx himself gave a few signposts about how he thought socialists should go about organizing. In the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels wrote that the socialists have to be involved in every economic and political struggle possible. But at the same time, they try to convince more and more people of the need to get rid of the capitalist system and replace it with a socialist society. The times that Marx lived through however didn’t give him the opportunity for applying those guidelines very often. It became the task of future generations to work out the question of organization.
Inequality has been going on forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. Industrial capitalism didn’t reverse it in the nineteenth century, and finance capitalism is not reversing it in the twenty-first. Marx explained that how from feudal aristocracies to industrialized empires, the engine of history has always been the conflict between the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This is the predicament in which we find ourselves even today in 2018. The truly beneficiary have been are only big technology and the few corporations that command large political and economic power.
The only thing that can reverse it is political action aimed at changing systems. Marxism gives us an opportunity to realize that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Reject the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a change which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. Collective political action is our only chance for freedom and enjoyment. To alter the course of inequality, we shall have to turn to the writings of Karl Marx for inspiration, wisdom and energy.
Today, it is essential to include in Marxian ideological arsenal the entire wealth of world socialist and democratic thoughts. Surely, the socialist world-view will return one day in a more human form to regain its glory keeping one thing certain in mind that new dreams will continue to arrive.
[Reaching the bicentennial birth anniversary of Karl Marx (5 May 1818–5 May 2018), we congratulate all the struggling peoples of the world.]
Born in Treves, Germany, on 5th May, 1818, Young Karl went to Bonn University in 1836, to study law. He received doctoral degree, on Epicurean philosophy, from the University of Jena in 1841.
In 1843, Marx moved to Paris and there he started writing for various newspapers. Journalism was Marx’s only source of earned income. In the eighteen-forties, Marx edited and contributed to political newspapers in Europe; from 1852 to 1862, he wrote a column for the New York Daily Tribune, the paper with the largest circulation in the world at the time. When journalistic work dried up, he struggled. He depended frequently on support from Engels.
He wrote and published articles offensive to the authorities, and, in 1843 was kicked out of Cologne, where he was helping run a paper called Rheinische Zeitung. He went to Paris, and that is where he and Engels became friends. Engels, who was two years younger, had the same politics as Marx. In 1845, Marx was expelled from France. He moved to Brussels. Three years later, though, something happened that almost no one had foreseen: revolutions broke out across Europe, including in France, Italy, Germany, and the Austrian Empire. Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto” just as those uprisings have been getting under way.
When unrest reached Brussels, he was suspected of arming insurgents and was evicted from Belgium, but he returned to Paris. Rioters there had broken that set the French throne on fire. So in 1849 Marx was forced into exile once again. He fled with his family to London. That is where, day after day in the Reading Room of the British Museum, he did the research for “Capital.”
Marx and his wife Jenny had six children. Of these only three survived. During the last decade of his life, his health declined. The deaths of his eldest daughter and his wife clouded the last years of his life. Marx died March 14, 1883, at his desk in London. He was buried on March 17 in Highgate Cemetery.
Marx was a poor orator; he knew it, and rarely addressed a crowd. His hair and eyes were black; his complexion was swarthy. Engels called him the “black fellow from Trier”; his wife and children called him the Moor. In private, he was modest and gracious. He loved Shakespeare and Greek literature, made up stories for his three daughters, and enjoyed cheap cigars and red wine. His wife and daughters adored him. He was “the gentlest and mildest of men.”
Marx’s works made no immediate impact on workers and thinkers. After his death, it was only in 1917, with Lenin’s victory in Russia, that the works of Marx were heard of throughout the world, and studied and discussed. Lenin contributed greatly to Marx’s ideas and revolutionary theory. He was the one to prove Marx correct.
Marx’s contribution to our understanding of society has been enormous. He was a genius, towering over much of the scientific knowledge of his day. His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.-Editor ]
Dr. P.R. Kalia, Editor Asian Times