Why Karl Marx and his 150-year-old philosophy will always be relevant
Marxism is not about making everyone poor, but about providing everyone with means to live a dignified and full-filling life. It is about equality with social justice
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the global Capitalist class which controls the global propaganda machinery has kept on pushing the narrative of the demise of communism, the irrelevance of Karl Marx, the failure of socialism etc. and yet, despite this sustained ideological campaign to delegitimize Marxism, it has not been able to convince people.
Today, in a world plagued with economic, political and social crisis, the phrase “Is Marx relevant” throws up more than 34 million search results on Google. That this question is being asked today says a lot about the potency and relevance of this 150-year-old philosophy.
What did Marx do?
Marx identified how Capitalism worked. He showed that behind the visible veil of growth, progress and property of Capitalism, which manifests itself today through as variety of commodities, glass buildings, transportation and communication revolutions etc., there exists a system of organized exploitation and inequality.
Marx showed that it is not the Capitalist or the celebrated figure of the entrepreneur who produces wealth in society but the uncelebrated and ‘productively invisible’ worker.
In popular everyday understanding, Capitalism is often equated with commodities or brands of commodities. It is, therefore, not surprising that Karl Marx began the investigation of Capitalism in Volume 1 of his magnum opus Capital with commodities.
Marx opens his seminal work as: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”
We are surrounded by commodities. But as Marx explained, Capitalism is not about commodities, nor is it about ‘brand’ of commodities; rather it is about how commodities are produced and distributed. Capitalism is a mode of production, which basically means ‘the way of producing’.
Mode of production in simplistic terms consists of two things, a) the social organization of production or relations of production and b) the kind of technologies, tools and methods used for production or the forces of production.
Different modes of production have existed in history based on the specific combination of the two. Thus, apart from the Capitalist mode of production which emerged in late medieval Europe and dominates the contemporary world, in the past we have had primitive communism, ancient mode of production and feudal model of production, all based on distinctive combinations of forces of production and relations of production.
Relations of production basically means the relationship between those who own means of production like land, factory, and capital, and those who do not. It is about how labour is extracted from people.
At various points in history, there have existed relations like master-slave and patricians-plebeians (ancient/slave mode of production) and lord-serf and guild–journeyman (feudal mode of production).
The dominant relation in Capitalism is that of the bourgeoisie or the Capitalist and the worker.
In the slave mode of production, the population was divided into freemen and slaves. The free had all civil and political rights, while slaves were deprived of every right. In this mode, not only the means of production were the private property of freemen, but also the human slaves.
After this system was demolished owing to several slave revolts, the feudal mode of production came into being in which the previous category of ‘slave’ was demolished and new economic class of ‘serf’ came into being. In this, feudal lords held complete property rights over means of production but incomplete property rights over the peasant serf.
Thus, serfs were expected to provide a range of services, taxes and levies to the feudal and in return, they received a small proportion of the produce. This can be best described as a system of bonded labour.
In later stages of feudalism and with the development of towns and trade, several other new classes like rich merchants and master craftsman on one hand and a broad mass of journeymen and apprentices emerged. From these classes later emerged the modern bourgeoisie or the Capitalist class.
The feudal mode of production was subsequently overthrown in a series of peasant and bourgeoisie revolts in the course of sixteenth to eighteenth century and led to the establishment of Capitalist mode of production.
The Capitalist mode of production is, by far, the most advanced mode of production in human history. Just like the previous modes of production, the Capitalist mode too is based on private ownership of means of production but on an unprecedented scale.
Also, unlike in previous modes, the workers are free to sell their labour in the capitalist mode of production; workers are not bounded by any duty or law to work for a capitalist.
Capitalism is based on the system of wage relations and free-exchange. That is why Marx and Engels called Capitalist mode the most advanced and the bourgeoisie class the most revolutionary class till date as it “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”.
Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx and Engels pointing out the huge progress of Capitalist system wrote; “during its rule of scarce one hundred years, [capitalism] has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together”.
Capitalism is a system whose the motor is profit; in search of profit, Capitalism consistently revolutionizes the methods of production through technological developments and converts all social or common property like forests, rivers and mountain etc. into private property.
Precisely because Capitalism is the most advanced and most productive system in entire history producing immense wealth, it is characterized by huge exploitation and misery of a large section of population because the source of wealth is not the thriftiness of the Capitalist but the labour of the working class.
Though the working class is theoretically free in a capitalist society, they are nothing but a commodity who have to sell their labour power in exchange of a wage to the Capitalist or the employer.
Marx showed that the source of profit in the modern Capitalist mode of production is the exploitation of the working class.
In a simple economic equation, a Capitalist can’t extract profit from their fixed cost (raw material, rent, bills and taxes etc.) but only from the variable cost, which is nothing but the wage provided in exchange of labour. The lesser the wage given to a worker, the more is the profit.
This is the reason why governments consistently attack the rights of the working class.
Marx and Engels described the modern State as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. The role of the State in Capitalist mode of production is to facilitate the interest of the Capitalist or the ruling class, which is achieved either through the legislative method or through direct brutal coercion.
If we try to understand recent events in India, like the proposed labour code bills, the three farm laws, the suspension of labour rights in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, the privatization drive, new Education Policy and the proposed Environmental Impact Assessment Draft etc., we can see that even after 150 years since Marx theorized how Capitalism works in economic and political spheres, his analysis remains true and accurate.
The most significant point which made Karl Marx probably the most hated figure for the Capitalism-Religion-Liberalism triumvirate was not only his sharp critic of Capitalism and Religion, but also his theory of working class revolution which was poised to remove economic and religious elite from their privileged position.
Unlike the proponents of Liberalism-Capitalism who like to think that Capitalism is the end of history, Marx and Engels conceptualized a more advanced and egalitarian mode of production, namely the socialist mode to denote a higher stage of human society.
One common critique labelled against Marxism is that it is a theory of poverty; that Marxism wants everyone to be poor. But this is far from the truth. Marxism is a tool of the working class to end misery and poverty and make a society of abundance. Marxism is not about making everyone poor, but about providing everyone with means to live a dignified and full-filling life. It is about equality with social justice.
The operative principle of Marxism is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
Marx produced the most acute and compressive analysis of Capitalism. He not only laid bare the economics and politics of Capitalism but also how Capitalism dehumanizes humans and creates alienation; how Capitalism transforms everything existing from basic necessities like education, health and hearth to something as basic as air and water to human emotions and relationship into a commodity.
Marxism, as literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton, says: “is a critique of capitalism-the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive critique of its kind ever to be launched. As long as capitalism is still in business, Marxism must be as well. Only by superannuating its opponent, can it superannuate itself”.
Both Marx and Engels and their philosophy of Scientific Socialism popularly known as Marxism will remain relevant as long as Capitalism and private property are not abolished.