Relevance of the thoughts of Karl Marx In 21st Century mainstream thinking

by Kalyan Guha

Frontier | Sep 23, 2018

Karl Marx, a name to reckon with every person who is aware of the proceedings of political economy of a state or a group of states, was born at Trier on French-German border on the side of Germany on 5 May 1818 a two-hours journey by train from Boppard. As Martin Kampchen, the scholar-emeritus of Viswabharati University and a resident of Santiniketan for a long time, wrote recently in an editorial page of the Telegraph of Kolkata on 28 June, 2018 remembering his childhood days in the hometown of his birth and referring to Marx’s birthplace from a different perspective. I quote his comments, “In Trier, we experience Marx’s life and achievements as part of the German struggle for independence from regional sovereigns, in favour of liberal social system, and to gain justice for exploited workers and craftsmen.” It is a social outlook.

His idea of communism and emancipation of the working class through alternative system of ‘class struggle’ concretised later in his exile leaving Germany and moving from place to place i.e. from Paris and then to London. Marx as a journalist drew wrath from the King and the power that be around the kinghood, the local overlords and moved from place to place with his family. On 5 May 2018, the bicentenary of the birth of a powerful thinker who nudged the minds of many to rethink and relook at the bourgeoisie economy from altogether a reawakened mindset, Karl Marx has been variously rechristened as the “Prophet of the last two centuries”, the “Messiah for the downtrodden” or the ‘Great Seer’ for the emancipation of the working class in future.

The eventful years of the three-fourth period of the 20th Century in Russia, China and other places prove that he was an outstanding visionary of the consequences of the events in the post-Industrial Revolution phase of European political economy in a new period of class struggle. Will he be coined as a historian, a political scientist, a philosopher or an economist or a social scientist? The vast canvas of scholarship he built up mainly in his exile in Paris and Britain was sweeping in expanse. People now wonder at what he has not read and explained (I deliberately avoided him mentioning as an analyst as it is too narrow a term cocooning him to a narrow shelf). He is a colossal intellectual giant both in his cerebral rotundity (in physical annotation!) and a massive writer of pages after pages either in his notebook/diaries or typescript (mostly with his lifelong friend, Frederick Engels). His main writings (very few of these are perused by the people who avow their faith in him) include ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right(1843),Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, commonly known as Paris Manuscript, the Holy Family(1845), the Poverty of Philosophy(1847), the Cologne Communist Trial(1852), the German Ideology(1845-46), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy(1867), Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon(1852) and the Civil War in France(1871). However, the Communist Manifesto in collaboration with Engels in 1848 and the three volumes of Capital (two volumes were published by Engels after Marx’s demise in 1883) complete his more or less wide writing canvas.

When Marx was dead by 1883, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ and the first volume of Capital was published during his life in 1859 and 1876 respectively. Such a massive thinker remains uncompetitive even today in the history of thinking in political economy. Even Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill (his writings on the ‘Principles of Political Economy’), the harbingers of economics of capitalism and redefining the nuances of political economy, wrote much less than Marx. If one evaluates the impact of their thoughts on the social and economic settings of 19th and 20th Centuries, Marx stands taller in reach and encompassing. The strides of capitalism took a long three-century period to develop or degenerate from the days of Industrial Revolution into the current state especially judged from the point of view of the state of living of the common people. But the Proclamation of the Communist Manifesto took the entire European part of Russia, France and the states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and other states in the Eastern Block of Europe by storm in a matter of few days in places starting from operatively the days of Paris Commune. An endeavour to that direction was brewing gradually from the days of French Revolution in late 18th Century. The impact was massive in dimension assessing from the magnitude of anger and deprivation among the worker (the proletariats in general), though sporadic in nature.

Even after the dismantling of USSR in 1986, the writings and predictions of Marx pop up frequently when the ‘crisis of capitalism’ torments the common man in loosing livelihood, wage deprivation and incidence of poverty because of depression in the economy, closure of huge banking institutions for non-performing assets or depression in industrial production on account of loss of demand for products. Farmers commit suicide in the unfortunate corners of the world of continuing hunger, depredation, deprivation, civil wars and abysmal gap between the Rich and the Poor in Asia, Africa, Latin America and fragmented countries of greater Yugoslavia. That the world is not evenly well-off is proved time and again by the thoughts of Marx and his suggestion for redress. Howsoever, it is arduous but not insurmountable.
Marx was convinced in a dispatch to 22 March, 1853 edition of New York Daily Tribune as under:

“Society is undergoing a silent revolution, which must be submitted to, and which takes no more notice of human existences it breakes down than an earthquake regards the houses it subverts. The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.”

Marx was so emphatic in his vision!

Relevance of the thoughts of Marx
Whenever the crisis of market economy recurs, people scamper for references even now for what the ‘Great Seer’ wrote and how the crisis can be overcome. Karl Marx is a composite individual in the mould of a social scientist, an economist, a political theorist, a philosopher in dialectics of eventuality and above all a democrat vouchsafing for ‘free association of people in a free society’ experimenting in alternative economic dispensation where people will be free from alienation from others and tools they operate. The Manifesto in its first prediction says, ‘….in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, …either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of contending class.’  Marx mentioned in his Paris Manuscript, ‘…to an increasing extent his own labour confronts him as another man’s property.’ (page 24 of EPM of 1844, Aakar Books Classics, 2016). The labourers are given less wage and the capital accrues more surplus to the owners of capital. In sequence the capital accumulates in the luxuries and the property for the capitalist and at the cost of misery for the labour class (the proletariats).

Marx’s prescience envisioned a common (communist) society of workers, farmers, innovative scientific and humanistic intellects in a free society in 21st Century and thereafter, based on material reality in a material world in an exploitation-free social system. A powerful prognosis in an imperfect world indeed!

Lastly Marx observes, “History is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends.” (The Holy Family, Ch. VI, 1854)

[Acknowledgement: I am especially thankful to Sankar Roy, a Marxist Scholar, for his valuable suggestions in the process of writing the article. He has spared his valuable time in reading the entire draft.]



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