Time has come to Rediscover Karl Marx

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”. Here’s a tribute, with his bi-centenary on May 5, for Different Truths. 

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 the capitalist mode of production, and the built-in factors leading to a 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 the 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 religions has 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 commonplace in life. An example is a 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.

These revolutions have transformed the world, the world of the working people above all, and of modern ‘bourgeoisie’ too along with society at large. But in the biggest of the revolutions – the Russian socialist revolution – the outcome has been a defeat of the revolution and dismantling of the Soviet Union. And along with, the ‘socialist’ regimes of Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Communist-led regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe was naively conceived by many to be the end of Marxism – such as a leading Japanese economist Francis Fukuyama observed: “This is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. Marx, they claimed, had been finally buried under the rubbles of the Berlin Wall.

The critics have been proved terribly wrong. At the dawn of the new millennium, Marx returned with a vengeance, bigger and more relevant than ever before. Globalisation and the new shape of the capitalist economy – the phenomenon of big fish eating the smaller fish reaching a climax – have come, as Marx predicted. And the biggest of his predictions – recurring crisis in the capitalist financial system – has become a stark reality.

These recurring financial crises in the capitalist system have brought to the fore the relevance and dept of Marxian thinking. So much so that in 1998, the Financial Times wrote under the caption, “Das Kapital Revisited”: We have moved “from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely a decade.” Earlier, the New Yorker wrote in October 1997, quoting a top American investment banker: “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right… I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.”

Add another insight – from the billionaire speculator, 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.”


And now, the 1998 financial crisis has been followed by an even bigger meltdown – the biggest since 1929 – engulfing the hub of the world financial order, the United States and Europe. That crisis is now unfolding. The capitalist financial system is being bettered as never before. In the United States, the fulcrum of capitalism’s global financial order, the financial system is teetering towards collapse. The $700 billion bailout package pushed through the American Congress would mean the end of American capitalism’s free market economy and the induction of state capitalism. The very state capitalism that United States’ ideologues have rubbished as ‘socialism’. This is being jeeringly described as another USSR – United States Socialist Republic. And there appears to be no alternative – the alternative would be a breakdown of the American economy.

The relevant question is: where does the financial crisis lead to? No easy solution emerges: a surgical operation will be needed. Is it another of Marx’s prediction – ‘capitalism creates its own grave-diggers’ – coming true? But here again, over-simplification of Marxian thought is not conductive to the right diagnosis of the present crisis in the financial sector of capitalism. Where will a surgical operation take the United States capitalist financial order? The search for correctives veers to the view that the half way house of state capitalism will not work; an adaptation of socialism is an abiding solution.

A transition to socialism? It is not a ‘revolution’ as visualised by Marx in the context of the nineteenth century early phase of capitalism – matching the first phase of industrial development. Can capitalism evolve into socialism? This is unexplored terrain. (Theoretically, this is possible. Capitalism replacing feudalism necessarily entailed a revolutionary process. For, between feudalism and capitalism, there was revolutionary change both in the ‘means of production and the relations of production’, to use Marxian terminology. Between capitalism and socialism, the means of production – advancing industry and acquisition of cutting edge technology – are common; the transformation is in the ‘relations of production’.)

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 the societal edifice. Two: the 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.

O.P. Sabherwal
The writer, former editor in Chief of IPA wrote this piece on October 15, 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis. The piece is very relevant on the occasion of the bicentenary of Karl Marx on May 5, 2018.
©IPA Service 

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