As the world commemorates the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx, the author reminds us of how this great German political philosopher was and still is a divisive figure on all sides of the political divide.
and red copper and textiles
and love and cruelty and life
and all the branches of industry
and the sky
and the blue ocean,
of sad riverbeds
and plowed earth and cities
will be changed one morning
one sunrise when, at the edge of darkness,
pushing against the earth, with their heavy hands,
they rise up.
Many things were said of them,
and of them
it was said
they have nothing to lose but their chains.
(Nazim Hikmet: Human Landscapes from my Country)
You can love him; you can hate him; you can ignore him. It is not going to make a difference to modern history’s most formidable thinker Karl Marx and his extraordinary legacy that has disturbed the slumber of wealth-owning classes for longer than a century and a half and will continue to do so as long as class inequalities exist. Marx was hardly a popular man in his lifetime; therefore, it would be unfair to expect him to be venerated by posterity; but, there is not one social thinker or movement whether on the right or the left that can honestly claim not to be influenced or affected by Marx’s thought.
Marx is a theorist; like Newton, Darwin or any other great scientists. That is how he saw himself: as a theorist of politics, society and history. As a theorist his great contribution is to add economy to every other discipline: “that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” There is a scientific authority and rigour to his analysis that refuses to be opposed on any easy terms. But like all great writers, such as Freud later, Marx cannot resist the temptation to be a literary artist, an aspect of his personality that he is careful to suppress when writing Capital which is stylistically bland and perhaps the most admired and least read of his work.
One of my personal favourites is the lyrical exposition of alienated labour in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 where, as Marx notes: “the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself.” This comparison of alienated labour with alienation of the self where a person invests in God at the expense of his own self is developed in other early works as well.
In Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction, Marx says: “man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again…. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”
In Marx’s dialectical style of writing the problem is posed against a solution, which can be traced back to how the problem is stated in the first place. Thus, “Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” A person that suffers needs religion to find an explanation for that suffering. At the same time, religious language is the anguish of the sufferer in the face of the meaningless nature of the suffering itself. As a sufferer, I have every right to feel that I don’t deserve the suffering. I have every reason to believe that I have been unfairly chosen for something I did not bargain for. Religion humanises the suffering while at the same time prevents a person from rationally comprehending the suffering. “Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself.”
The conclusion of the essay is dramatic and a demonstration of the power of Marx’s prophetic voice, where he is at his poetic best:
“The emancipation of Germany is only possible in practice if one adopts the point of view of that theory according to which man is the highest being for man…The emancipation of Germany will be an emancipation of man. Philosophy is the head of this emancipation and the proletariat is its heart. Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy.”
In the Socratic dialectic, a line of argument is built through a careful examination of the multiple connotations of a definition. In the Marxian dialectical style, if the problem is clear, the solution must be obvious. Two things Marx wants his readers to understand: one is that the worker is the creative force behind the transformations in the economy, thus making the proletariat the real owners of wealth. Another is that the working class is never going to rightfully inherit what belongs to them unless they unite as a group with common interests and revolt. I don’t wish to dwell on the utopian commune where, in the absence of class divisions, everybody is supposed to be at harmony with themselves because that would be a simplistic view of human nature.
Human alienation has a spiritual and emotional side to it; we really have no clue why we are on this planet and where we are going once we are done for the day. The search for meaning is also a search for love and happiness within that brief span of time that is given to us by the accident of our birth. There is no reason to believe that in a communist society people would be perfectly reconciled simply because they don’t have to think about food, shelter and clothing.
It is also difficult to disagree with what Bertrand Russell has to say about Marx in his A History of Western Philosophy:
“Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to Man. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not the cosmic importance, which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific.”
In the face of the vastness of the universe we only can despair at our littleness. However, presumptuous the theoretical claims we might make in our own defence, in the end we need to be humbled by the thought that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (Nabokov, Speak, Memory).
This does not in any way reduce the significance of Marx’s voice as a theorist for the oppressed classes. The appeal that the gospel of Jesus had to the slaves of the Roman Empire who saw in those few pages a programme for spiritual and political liberation, something of that appeal communism as espoused by Marx, will continue to have on generations of oppressed people. Wherever a person experiences terrible injustice and is not looking at God or religion to solve his or her problems, Marx will be the next best thing that will give a platform for a realistic assessment of one’s own situation.
Power understands the language of fear; the powerful are afraid for the loss of their property and their lives more than the powerless who have “nothing to lose but their chains.” If you have everything at your disposal of course the last thing on your mind is to be exposed to the anger of the deprived classes. Marx reminds the owners of wealth that they cannot hide forever behind a façade of their own making; therefore, in Engels’ words, he was the “best hated and most calumniated man of his time.”
The Italian anti-fascist writer, Ignazio Silone speaks of the power that communism exerts on those who feel with victims of hunger, poverty, injustice and exploitation. Communism possesses the intellectual weapons with which fascism could be fought. The dedicated communists of Vietnam clearly demonstrate that a poorly equipped people armed with conviction can challenge the mightiest army on earth. Maybe an ideal communist society will not happen any time soon but that will not change the fact that Marx is the alternative to the boundless cruelty and repression of an unequal society where people are punished simply for being born poor and without means for basic human existence.
As Silone says:
“This explains the attraction exercised by Communism on certain categories of young men and women, on intellectuals, and on the highly sensitive and generous people who suffer most from the wastefulness of bourgeois society. Anyone who thinks he can wean the best and most serious-minded young people away from Communism by enticing them into a well-warmed hall to play billiards, starts from an extremely limited and unintelligent conception of mankind.”
Where a human being is affected by the suffering of another human being whether it is happening because of a war, famine or simply because they have been left to perish on the streets of the world, Marx has the answers on how to fight the inhumanity and the violence of a human-made condition. Bertrand Russell says with a hint of irony that, “Marx professed himself an atheist, but retained a cosmic optimism which only theism could justify.” Ironically, it is that “cosmic optimism” in his writing which stems from an indignation at the plight of the have-nots that makes Marx, a visionary who saw in revolution the coming to an end of class society.
* Prakash Kona is Professor at the Department of English Literature, School of English Literary Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India.