It’s time to rediscover Karl Marx

O.P. Sabherwal

The 125th death anniversary of Karl Marx is at hand, recalling the words of Frederick Engels, “The greatest living thinker (has) ceased to think”. The critics may go wild, but the BBC forum listing the ‘greatest of the millennium’ at the turn of the century, conferred a similar epithet on Marx – “greatest thinker of the millennium”. The BBC’s Radio 4 listeners voted Marx as the “greatest philosopher of the millennium”.
The greatest philosopher who propounded dialectical materialism? Or is he the great economist, who discovered “surplus value” in capitalist mode of production, and the built-in factors leading to recurring crisis in capitalism? Is he the economic genius who overshadowed Adam Smith and Ricardo in uncovering the place of money in present-day society? Nay, was Marx the revolutionary and political ideologue who uttered the battle cry, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”?
Marx is all this and more: Engels described him as “the main of science”. Says Engels: “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the discoveries in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.” Not widely known is Marx’s original contributions in mathematics.
There was a link in all these facets of Marx. Attracted to Hegelian dialectics, then a left Hegelian leaning towards materialist philosophy of Feuerbach, and thereafter a critic of Feuerbach’s soulless materialism. Marx elaborated the philosophy of dialectical materialism. Though emerging as one of the greatest German philosophers in an age of greatness of German philosophy, Marx moved on, with the pronouncement: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it.”
And change he did bring about, with a momentous, multi-faceted impact on human society, such as none outside “prophets” of different religious have bequeathed. Marxian thinking influenced may more millions in all continents and most countries than any single religion. Marxian ideas, concepts and interpretations of social realities have seeped down through a century and a half and have become common place in life. An example is the famous slogan coined by James Carville for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 – ‘It’s the economy, stupid’: out and out a Marxian prescription.
The difference between the prophets and Marx was this. While each prophet propounded what in his view was a finality of life and being, Marx sought to question every new socio-economic projection. He rejected dogmatism. Such was his contempt of the dogmatists in his own days that shortly before he died in 1883, he wrote a letter to the French workers’ leader Jules Guesede and his own son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, rebuking them for “revolutionary phrase-mongering”. And he added, “If that is Marxism then I am not a Marxist”.
Yet, Marx propounded concepts of philosophy, history, economics and politics, ushering in a new current of thought and action in the world. Many Marxists – and they were millions – however were so gripped by Marxian formulations that they made Marxism a dogma. The results have been a mixed blessing – transforming and uplifting human society in a big way, but also in great disasters – results of dogmatism and over-simplification of Marxian ideological prescriptions, often ignoring the context of the age and era in which Marx worked on these thoughts.
Nevertheless, the biggest and greatest revolutions of human history – the 1917 Russian socialist revolution, led by the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin, the Chinese anti-feudal, anti-colonial revolution led by Chinese Communist Party headed by Mao-zedong, Vietnam’s anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolutionary wars under Ho Chi-Minh’s leadership, revolutions in Latin America’s ‘banana republics’ such as Cuba and Venezuela, to mention notable ones – have all been products of Marxian thought and the ideological concepts Marx formulated.
Add another insight – from the billionaire spectulator, George Soras, who minted a vast fortune on the stock exchange by applying a portion of Marx’s writing, elaborating his theory of money in capitalist institutions. After the 1997-1998 crisis, he wrote: “Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago, better in some ways than the equilibrium theory of classical economics.” Some of their predictions “did not come true because of the counter-veiling political interventions in democratic countries. Unfortunately we are once again in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the lessons of history. This time the danger comes from market fundamentalism.”
Transition from capitalism might throw up new formulations of socialism, searching, separating the good and the bad in capitalism; propounding a new pattern of socialism based on lessons of the past, retaining the good in capitalism – such as competition which generates creativity. By adding new contours of Marxian creativity – developing a more advanced version of socialism?
Indeed, the time has come to re-discover Marx. More than during his lifetime, he dominated the twentieth century, right till the penultimate decades. Marx is being reinvented in the twenty-first century. His relevance perhaps is even bigger now. Three aspects need to be underscored. One: Marxism’s basic formulation on economics, the technological level of production reached being the key to societal edifice. Two: role of the financial sector under capitalism. Three: the need to discard religious irrationality, superstition and fundamentalism, and to give pre-eminence to science and technology. (IPA)

Saturday, 5 May, 2018