Karl Marx: A bicentennial tribute

Karl Marx

Marx, unlike many of his contemporaries, remains an enduring figure for dreamers, for romantics and for those who wanted to be Don Quixote and change the world, smashing the imaginary satanic forces

‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

Karl Marx with these immortal words talked about the way capitalism would transform societies. Its workings would destroy all vestiges of sacredness and mystique, and finally bring humans out of the cloak of false consciousness and into the realities of their true existence, and through that would identify their true relations with each other rather than the mystiques of falsities. A century and a half later, even a cursory estimate of his ideas makes us realise how sharply he articulated the fundamental social implications of the logic of capital and its operations. It is in order then, that on the occasion of the bicentenary of Marx, we look back at his discerning words in the context of the recent spate of violence and regressive processes across the world and their local versions in India, to examine their links with the operation of the capital. While there are winners, one also to see how the losers are accommodated or excluded by providing intellectual and ideological ruse in these conflicts. Without such an interrogation, as Marx believed all through his working life, the lives of those who are the losers cannot be changed.

What Marx, unlike most economists and politicians of his time and even later ignored or seriously underestimated, did was to point to the key feature of capitalism: its inherent tendency to transform society. A historical understanding of Marx’s writings would suggest that he showed most clearly that in the 19th century, capitalism was undermining bourgeoisie life – a life the Victorians and others had taken for granted. Marx could point out that the fundamentals on which this ‘life’ was based would soon be destroyed by the logic of capital: its unsatiated desire for expansion and unceasing appropriation of surplus.

For Karl Marx, nationalism and religion, two of the fundamental features of the time, were to gradually disappear as the ‘revolutionary’ character of capitalism would work against them. Nationalism would give way to global consciousness against capitalist sway, and religion to the onward march of science.

When we remember the man who was born in the small provincial city of Trier two hundred years ago to Jewish parents (who converted to Protestantism in the predominantly Catholic city), we also remember how Europe and his own country Germany have undergone tumultous changes in these two hundred years, and how his own ideas and their proponents have played quite a central part in many of the changes. Today, Europe exhibits some of his prognostications: there are obvious signs that religion has faded into insignificance in the public life and that science has conquered the human imagination. But at the same time, quite ironically, his arguments relating to the power of the capital is proved right when the same capitalist system, which his followers tried to bypass and in fact overthrow through the socialist system, has vanquished them thoroughly in Marx’s own backyard, Europe.

For Karl Marx, nationalism and religion, two of the fundamental features of the time, were to gradually disappear as the ‘revolutionary’ character of capitalism would work against them. Nationalism would give way to global consciousness against capitalist sway, and religion to the onward march of science

There are significant dialectics here and Marx may have been right. The chief protagonists of the capitalist world order—World Bank, IMF, the Wall Street and the Western European conglomerate, for example, have been trying to attack nationalism and its chief vehicle, the nation state, world over. However, different versions of nationalism have come back, in many cases to attack capital itself, or as in some cases, to be the vanguard of capitalism. In this, there is the de novo nationalism which has tried to attack and finish the humane and emancipatory elements in the traditional nationalism, as for instance in the colonies which fought the colonial power with the help of their emerging nationalism, so that the sway of the capital is total. The way Donald Trump, Marie le Pen or Theresa May have articulated their respective ‘nationalisms’—of the United States, France or Great Britain—in recent years, it has become evident that while global capitalism wants, as in Marx’s understanding, nationalism to disappear, there are shadowy ways in which it also encourages regressive forces to acquire nationalistic garbs.

Marx’s idea that that capitalism is a socially revolutionary (meaning that it brings unprecedented changes) force has never been so true as it is today. First, the logic of capital has attacked the life the bourgeoisies who meticulously tried to shape it in the last two centuries. The rapid disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie into the ranks of the urban poor in our societies is also the indication of this. This has resulted, as Marx would argue, in an attack on the bourgeoisie values themselves. The not so hidden stories of the American middle class are very important in this history. Closer at home, while a socialist pattern of society wanted to usher in a middle class, the new uncensored sway of global capitalism is now an avowed enemy of this same middle class and wishes to destroy its historical roots, the family, and the intellectual and cultural order on which it was founded. The recent attacks on the Indian universities or the public sector units are a very frank expression of this attack. The wonderful dialectic that is at play here would have been text-book material for Marx: the middle class which brought, for example, Narendra Modi to power, now see him as their adversary. All this is done while the cloak of religion and nationalism is donned to mask the ongoing capitalist operation. The process of demonetisation was one such rude indicator of such forces at play. Karl Marx, therefore, remains the most vital thinker even a century and a half after he began to present his analysis of the rise of capital.

The way Donald Trump, Marie le Pen or Theresa May have articulated their respective ‘nationalisms’—of the United States, France or Great Britain—in recent years, it has become evident that while global capitalism wants, as in Marx’s understanding, nationalism to disappear, there are shadowy ways in which it also encourages regressive forces to acquire nationalistic garbs

While it had been an intellectual feat to show how capitalism worked, yet one might wonder as to whether Karl Marx had any clue to suggest as to how to escape from its exploitation or alienation: two of the key processes of capitalism his writings underscored. His disciples, however, have been trying ever since to visualise societies anchoring on his basic thought of human solidarities out of the shadows of exploitation that promotes competition as the prime logic of life, such as Lenin followed by Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, and so many others in so many other countries. Many of them also made a mess of these efforts on their own or with active opposition from the capitalist order. The euphemism of Cold War hides the fact of millions dead across the globe. In all these Marx remained the most moving figure inspiring generations.

There were also workable hypothesis by those who read the context differently and reached slightly different conclusions for social orders. Jawaharlal Nehru, the maker of Modern India, for example, was one such reader of Marx who studied the historical processes of the global economic and political systems of the forties and fifties and decided that priorities of the time needed different social frames. Like Marx, he knew economic prosperity in one country would not be a guarantee for its long-term survival under the onslaught of the capital. The solidarities of the poorer countries through peace and democracy was the only guarantor of their survival and the march towards a more humane order past colonial exploitation.

Marx, unlike many of his contemporaries, remains an enduring figure for the dreamers, for the romantics and for those who wanted to be even Don Quixote and change the world smashing the imaginary satanic forces. There are even religious preachers who invoke Marxist ideas. There are nationalist leaders who are avowed Marxists in their leanings. No wonder one of the most romantic rebels in India, Rahul Sankrityayan in 1953 wrote one of the earliest biographies of Marx (Kitab Mahal, Allahabad) for popular reading and had later on turned into the latter’s enthusiastic follower. In fact, the life of Marx has provided inspiration to millions, not necessarily members of the communist parties, in which changing the lives of the victims of the system, irrespective of their national or social locations, becomes an all enveloping mission in life. Capitalism is now more global than it was in Marx’s time and any desire to change people’s lives needed to have politics which embraced the globe as its ambit. Narrowness both of explanatory categories as well as of the spirit with which the politics is articulated at this moment of history will always be seen as siding with the perpetrators rather then redeemers. Karl Marx articulated this understanding better than anyone in his own times, and his ideas and analysis certainly hold true for our times as well.

Dr Rakesh Batabyal teaches History and Theory of Media at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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