What a turnaround for Karl Marx! In less than 30 years after the spectacular collapse of Communism in Europe, he is enjoying a wonderful and unexpected revival today. Not too long back, a BBC poll rated him the greatest philosophical thinker of all time, a view that is enthusiastically endorsed by many, most of all by China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping.
It is a warm ‘homecoming’ for Marx in the country of his birth, Germany. In Trier, the town where he was born 200 years ago in May 1818, a massive statue of the philosopher, donated by the Chinese Government, has been unveiled. Another one, for long stored in a warehouse in Neubrandenburg, is being dusted to stand in a public space once again.
The spectre of communism no longer haunts Europe or for that matter, any other part of the world. Nowhere does the ruling class tremble in fear of a proletarian revolution. With the blame for Communism’s most egregious excesses no longer sticking to him, Marx is getting a second and more objective hearing.
Much of what he said — the diagnostic part of his thoughts — are as valid today as when he first expounded them, take this for instance: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural…. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”
Marx’s core thoughts make absolute sense to ordinary folk connecting them so easily, to others in history like Jesus, who spoke out eloquently against oppression and the inequities of the wealthy and the powerful. The big difference lay in Marx’s forceful assertion, that the condition can be changed and the oppressors, mighty as they are, can be and would be annihilated.
Stress on change
It is the certainties built into Marx’s philosophy that made it a faith that could be blindly followed. As the Communist intellectual and Tito’s friend turned enemy, the late Milovan Djilas observed, “The strength of Marxist philosophy did not lie in its scientific elements but in the connections with a mass movement and most of all its emphasis on the objective of a changing society. It stated again and again that the existing world would change simply because it had to change, that it bore the seeds of its own opposition and destruction, that the working class wanted the change and would be able to effect it.”
Marx lashed out against capitalism’s predatory character, outed its terrific capacity to seduce the world and persuade the masses to buy snake oil. He was furious with its heartless character and its exploitation of workers, making a very few, not only rich, but powerful and manipulative, and ultimately in control of the State.
Contrary to common belief, Marx acknowledged the rude efficiency and animal appetite of global capitalism. As he states, “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” It was its excesses he inveighed against. Several felt that he had, well ahead of Thomas Piketty, identified economic inequality as a principal global concern.
As Melvyn Bragg, introducing a discussion on Marx in BBC put it, “In phrase after phrase coming out and spinning down the centuries,” Marx roused the masses, hectoring them to revolt against an oppressive and exploitative order. Who can deny the simple and menacing tone of the concluding words of the Communist Manifesto: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
No other philosopher in history had the power to incite as much as Marx, and it is well known that he acted on his belief — none too successfully — holding that “The philosophers only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” The 20th century clearly was a Marxian one. Inspired by him, Russia went communist as did China and a host of smaller countries across Asia and Africa.
It is his belief that an anesthetized working class needed the crutch of a dictatorship of the proletariat that paved the way for dictators like Stalin and Mao to take over their countries and brutalise their people, imprisoning, starving and executing millions. But that in no way makes Marx accountable for Communism’s excesses. Rather, he should be credited with scaring the countries of the world enough, starting with western democracies, to clean up their act and make their people better off than ever in history.
Marx had his detractors. Keynes, was one of those who did not think much of him or his theories. Jonathan Sperber, the author of a well-received biography of Marx, convincingly argued that he was just a man of his times, engaged with the problems of his age not ours. However, many more believe in Marx’s enduring relevance, The Economist amongst them. which agreed with him that capitalism, “by its nature is a global system,” and that “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. That is as true today as it was in the Victorian era.”
In his brilliant biography of Marx, Isiah Berlin observed that he was “a charmless man and his behaviour was often boorish, but even his enemies were fascinated by the strength and vehemence of his personality the boldness of his views and the breadth and brilliance of the contemporary situation.” How true!
After 200 years, it is wonderful to see Marx, liberated from the Communists who swore by him, to be acknowledged for what he really is — the principal prophet of the new age, no less.
The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.