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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 24 New Delhi June 1, 2019

The Continuing Relevance of Karl Marx

Saturday 1 June 2019

by Zahoor Ahmad Wani

Those who are awake have one common world...

—Heraclitus

... they have a world to win

—Marx and Engels

This article examines how relevant Marx’s ideas are in the contemporary neoliberal world. It is impossible in this short write-up to do more than broach a few basic ideas of Karl Marx. Pronounced dead and buried at the end of the twentieth century, in the last one decade Karl Marx’s work and life have resurfaced and attracted the attention of international scholars, trade unionists, militant anti-capitalists and many others. The influential bourgeois news-papers including the Financial Times, the New York Times, and London Review of Books have highly praised Marx for his ideas to have a profound impact on the historical development of the world. Eric Hobsbawm has aptly argued ‘if one thinker left a major indelible mark on the 20th and 21st century, it was Karl Marx’. (2011: 4) It is unassailable. Even his critics acknowledge the importance of Marx’s ideas. One of his fiercest critics, Karl Popper, wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies, that his works ‘will secure him forever a place among the liberators of mankind’. (2003: 133) The deconstructionist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, wrote in his work, Specters of Marx, that ‘it will be always mistaken not to read and reread and discuss Marx’. (1994: 13)

Barring a few texts, he is not an easy author to read. Two canonical texts, that is, The Communist Manifesto and the Capital made Marx a historical force of international importance. His ideas have fundamentally launched political upheavals and changed the way we see the world. His powerful theoretical and methodological instruments are indispensable to explain and understand a world that seems to be getting more chaotic, unstable, and irrational by the day. And these proffer us a guide on how to avoid alienation, exploitation and other crises created by the forces and relations of finance capitalism, something about which Karl Marx was so critical.

Subsequently, his essential concepts and ideas persist as a cumulatively enriched source for practitioners, activists and theorists seeking social change beyond capitalism. The questions Marx has raised against capitalism, exploitation, state suppression, violence, alienation, environ-mental crisis are with us still. As Jacques Attali cogently writes, ‘philosophers before him have thought of man in his totality, but he was the first to apprehend the world as a whole which is at once political, economic, scientific and philosophical’. (Cited in Hobsbawm 2011: 12)

In their remarkable prophetic work, The Communist Manifesto (the most successful political pamphlet of all time), Marx and Engels envisaged a world in which globalised market-driven economy reigned supreme, careless, the human misery and social polarisation they inflicted, and extreme condition of global inequality—in which the gap between the rich and poor had widened and become intolerable. They wrote in the Manifesto, ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instru-ments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.’ (1948: 12) Marx has repro-duced these words in the Capital as well.

We live in a world of commodity production, and most of that production is controlled and concentrated in relatively few hands. Therefore, the Manifesto is accurately titled, argumentative, assertive, and sizzles with revolutionary zeal. According to Isaiah Berlin, the Manifesto is “a great revolutionary hymn†. (1959: 150) He further wrote: “No other modern political move-ment or cause can claim to have produced anything comparable with it in eloquence and power.†(Ibid.) It is more powerful and pervasive today than ever because it advocates emancipatory projects where postmodernism and other isms deny their possibility and question their desirability.

In the Manifesto, referring to the first Opium War of 1839-42 through which the UK broke open China’s markets, Marx argues: “that the cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls†and of its drawing “even the most bar-barian nations into civilisation†. What we see today is that bourgeoisfication has received official support in China. It is one of the leading global manufacturing outputs. As rapid changes in the world economy led a debate about the wonders of capitalism and impossibility of any alternative, the Wall Street Journal, in the late 1990s, came up with a triumphalist slogan: ‘Adventures in Capitalism’ though it turned into a succession of increasingly severe economic crises including the East Asian crises in 1997-98, stock market crash in the spring of 2000, the collapse of the dot-com boom in 2000-01, and the financial crunch in 2008 which was the greatest economic disruption and crisis since the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Willem Buiter (2008), a leading apologist of the system, argues of ‘the end of capitalism as we knew it’. Chris Harman writes in his great work Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx: “Capitalist complacency turned to capitalist panic, euphoria to desperation. Yesterday’s heroes became today’s swindlers.†(2010: 8) After each crisis, there was a wave of articles and books announcing resonantly ‘return to Marx’. Given the current economic, political and intellectual rubble, it is time to give renewed attention to Karl Marx, who developed prophecy analysis regarding the dynamics of capitalism that is riddled with contradictions and destroys itself.

Marx’s critique of capitalism as a system deeply rooted in exploitation that denigrates, deforms and demoralises human prominence, and is recurringly crisis-prone, remains valid in this neoliberal world. For the past four decades, we have witnessed and lived in the era of neoliberal capitalism—marketisation, privati-sation, deregulation and flexibilisation became the official and prevailing ideals of politics, journalism, academia and business. These ideals of neoliberal capitalism have become major causes of the current crisis encompassing the environmental alongside the political and economic. Also, it has become a source of deepened alienation, inequality, huge inter-continental migrations, the explosion of medical costs, and poverty. Structurally, it also exacer-bated the world’s fragmentation into defensive, internally repressive, xenophobic blocs, and wars of varying scope. As capitalism develops, so does these crises. Therefore, Marx’s alternative to the inhuman reign of capital is the emancipatory socialist project. It was primarily developed in The Communist Manifesto and later in the fourth section of chapter one, volume 1 of Capital and urges ‘associations of free individuals’. Paresh Chattopadhyay precisely writes that this ‘project has lost none of its lustre and is still worth striving for’. (2010: 24) Hence, it is prescient as ever.

His theories, including alienation, exploitation, class struggle and ideology, still remain imperative and relevant today than they were a hundred years ago. However, his theories have suffered the most enormous distortion, and misinterpretations at the hands of the myth-makers, defenders of capitalism, non-Marxists, and even his followers. They are influenced by the array of post-isms and have a dim view of Marx’s central ideas including dialectics and materialism. Because of the above reasons, he grew so irritated towards the end of his life, to declare: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist’ and ‘God save me from my friends!’. ï ®

References

Buiter, Willem, 2008, ‘The End of Capitalism as We Knew It’, Financial Times, September 17, 2008.

Chattopadhyay, Paresh, 2010, ‘The Myth of Twentieth-Century: Socialism and the Continuing Relevance of Karl Marx’, Socialism and Democracy, 24 (3): 23-45.

Derrida, Jacques, 1994, Specters of Marx, London: Routledge.

Harman, Chris, 2010, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx, Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.

Hobsbawm, Eric, 2011, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, UK: Little Brown.

Berlin, Isaiah, 1959, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, New York: Oxford University Press.

Popper, Karl, 2003, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 11: Hegel and Marx, New York: Routledge Classics.

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital, Vol. 1,Trans. Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, F., 1948, Manifesto of the Communist Party, New York: International Publishers.

Zahoor Ahmad Wani, Ph.D, is from CIP/SIS, Central University of Gujarat. He is the former coordinator, Central Reading Group, CUG.

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