Marx at 200
Karl Marx’s 200th birth anniversary was marked on May 5, 2018. In Europe, the commemoration of the milestone evoked mixed responses, both for and against. Not surprisingly in the time of Trump, not much was heard from the US. In Pakistan, relatively small gatherings of Leftists remembered and paid homage to the great thinker.
It is the fate of those who challenge the existing order to be reviled and repressed during their lifetime by the defenders of the status quo. In Marx’s case, the swirl of pro- and anti- views continues unabated to this day. Of late, and particularly since the 2007-08 global economic crisis, there has been a revival of interest in Marx’s ideas even in previously hostile circles.
What, briefly, were those ideas? Marx critiqued capitalism, not only in economic terms, but as a system that exploited, alienated and marginalised the vast majority for the benefit of the elite few. His critique aimed at examining the ideas put forward by the emerging science of political economy in his day (19th century). The gist of his critique (and this does not do justice to the profundity of his thought) was that the source of value is living labour and the source of profit is surplus labour, defined as the extra labour expended (and therefore value created) by the worker over and above the bare necessities of life required to reproduce him and the working class for the continuation of the system. The expropriation of this surplus labour (value) constitutes the profit of the capitalist class and the source of social inequality, which rises incrementally as capitalism grows and develops. Describing the scenario as poverty in the midst of plenty (for the few), he dealt with the alienation of the worker in particular from the product of his labour, and humanity at large from its essence. The product of labour now presents itself as an alien force for the subjugation of its maker and this alienated product, in the form of commodities, is now fetishised to the level of irresistible want or need.
Marx saw the trend of capitalism expanding to become a global system, in the process battering down the gates of all societies in a relatively less developed stage of history (colonialism). He advocated the workers of the world to unite in a common struggle to overthrow capitalism, in the process extending their solidarity to the peoples of the world subjugated by colonialism and imperialism. Marx therefore stands out as the leading revolutionary thinker of his time, and arguably all time.
Marx’s critics pounce on the failure of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century inspired by his ideas as proof of the failure of those ideas. The two formulations that best encapsulated this line of argument were The End of History (Francis Fukuyama) and There is no Alternative (Margaret Thatcher). However, as transpired in his own lifetime, Marx’s ideas have a stubborn habit of returning to haunt his enemies. This is because Marx’s philosophy (Dialectical and Historical Materialism), method, analysis/critique of capitalism have never seemed more valid than today, despite the fact that socialism as a system in some one-third of the world has seized to exist, except for some smaller countries’ efforts to keep it going in an unrecognisably changed world.
Marx analysed the recurrent crises of capitalism as not accidental by-products of its development, but as inescapable inherent traits of the process of capitalist production. While not shy of describing, sometimes in admiring terms, the unprecedented scientific, technological and quantitative constant revolutionisation of the system of production under capitalism, Marx exposed the inherent contradiction between these dynamic productive forces and the relations of production (ownership of means of production and therefore wealth, etc), a contradiction that, when it begins to act as a brake or fetter on the further development of the productive forces, ushers in a period of crises and revolution.
As a body of thought and a critical expose of capitalism and its results and outcomes, few can match the depth and profundity of Marx’s work. Those who reject Marxism because of its failure in practice in the 20th century have jumped the gun. Mainstream western thought is returning as we speak to (admittedly in a critical manner) Marx’s ideas. This has happened because today’s crises of capitalism and imperialism can be profoundly illuminated by Marx’s thought. His relevance therefore is firmly established two centuries after his birth, in an extraordinary validation of a revolutionary thinker written off by the defenders and apologists of capitalism.
Do in fact the outcomes of 20th century revolutions provide justification for the dismissal of Marx as an utopian 19th century thinker proved wrong in practice? That is a question beyond the scope of this space. Suffice it to say that revolutions do not always follow the path desired by those who aspire to bring them about. The received wisdom in Marx and his followers was that revolutions in at least the leading capitalist countries were the sine qua non for socialism to succeed. Instead, through the bloody repressions of the European 1848 revolutions (that led to Marx’s expulsion from the Continent to live out the rest of his life in struggle in exile in Britain), the drowning in blood of the Paris Commune of 1870 (which helped Marx formulate the argument that the defeat meant the revolution could not wield the readymade state machinery for its purposes but would have to smash it and create a new one), and the subsequent years of waiting for the Red Mole (revolution) to reappear while continuing his theoretical work and organisation of the workers’ International, Marx’s followers in the shape of the Bolshevik Party in Czarist Russia found themselves having to build socialism in one (albeit large) country.
The vicissitudes, victories and defeats of that whole 74-year era that the Soviet Union existed needs detailed treatment to learn from both the strengths and weaknesses thrown up by that experience, in order to recreate the socialist project from the ashes of that defeat and retreat. The best ‘recruiter’ for this project remains capitalism and its current financialised imperialist stage, as the struggles of the 21st century for social justice, equity and the development of the full potential of every human being as the necessary condition for achieving the full potential of all human beings are demonstrating. These struggles may appear to the casual observer marginal to world history today. But deeper reflection will indicate they may well hold the future in their hands.