The bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx was celebrated last Saturday much more quietly than the first, which was actually the first big occasion that was faced by the USSR, which had not yet taken shape, with the concatenation of dates meaning that the centenary came just after the new state marked its first May Day. For the first centenary, there was a huge if chaotic state which revered him; for the second, there are merely three states, China, North Korea and Cuba, with only the first with any right to being called large.
However, these states are no longer revolutionary in the sense that the USSR was. Perhaps the reason was that the Soviet state was headed by Vladimir Lenin, who had added the need for a vanguard party to the original Marxist doctrine. In that the three states mentioned above adhere to the rule of the Communism, they could be still described as Leninist. However, it is debatable whether they are still Marxist. That of course raises the question of whether it is possible to be Leninist without being Marxist.
There may no longer be any state willing to pay Marx more than lip service, and previous few of those, but he still is of interest to the historian, especially of the modern. Along with Baruch Spinoza, he may well be one of two great Jewish philosophers of the modern age, but he is of perhaps greater significance as one of the leading figures of the Modern Age. He is the first, for the modern world cannot be imagined without him, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. Of the quartet, only Darwin was not Jewish.
It is perhaps worth noting that Marx, like Spinoza, was hardly an orthodox Jew. However, their predecessor as a great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, was orthodox. He practiced medicine and philosophy in Andalus at a time when it was still ruled by Muslims. The effect of Christianity on Spinoza and Marx thus seems to have been one of driving them away from their faith.
Though he preceded them all, Darwin, Einstein and Greud served to provide ammunition for his philosophy. Marx was most valued for his economic theories, but it was as a philosopher that he first won recognition. This was because he applied Hegel’s dialectic to materialism, even though Hegel had been an idealist. He thus provided the philosophical underpinning for his theory of class struggle, which he used to critique capitalism as it was developing.
He did not originate this critique. That had been done by the philosophers of the 18th century, who saw that capitalism was developing into perhaps the most exploitative system ever in the history of Mankind. While Marx was the first of the quartet who make up the 20th century’s intellectual blueprint, it is the rest who are necessary. Marx’s materialism needed Darwin’s theory of evolution, not just because it weakened the Biblical view of creation, but because it provided an explanation not just of man, but of all flora and fauna. Similarly, Freud’s psychological theories were needed by Marxists to explain the human mind. Einstein’s theory of relativity was need to explain the entire universe.
As Marx understood the universe to be purely matter, it did not need a creator. Indeed, a creator was precluded. No wonder that Marx became an atheist. While Hegel had remained not just a believer but a Christian, Marx became an atheist. His followers were also mostly atheists, but many of them were followers of religion. Not only were there Christian Socialists as early as the end of the 19th century), but the 20th century saw the rise of Marx-inspired ‘liberation theology’ in Latin America.
Though Marx felt that only revolution would lead to communism, Social Democrats felt that this could be achieved by contesting elections, giving rise to Social Democracy, like the British Labour Party. The Labour Party owes something to Marx for its ideology, and he in turn owed much to the earlier socialists, who called for the amelioration of working conditions for labour as well as higher wages. However, the ultimate ideal was communism. That involved establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, or working class. Marx saw the state as merely a means by which the exploiting class, currently the bourgeoisie, enforced its will. Therefore, the state machinery had to be seized. ‘Purists’ like Lenin insisted that this could only be done through a revolution, others, like Kautsky, the leader of the German Social Democrats, felt that elections were an alternative path, indeed a more preferable one.
However, that was in the future. Marx in his lifetime devoted himself to writing his monumental work, Das Kapital, which had only one volume published at the time of his death in 1881. Here it is essential to mention his lifelong collaborator, Fridrich Engels. Not only did he enable Marz to write his works by subsidizing him in the UK, but he also edited the second and third volumes of Das Kapital after Marx’s death, but also compiled a fourth from the writings Marx left behind. Engels had begun his collaboration with Marx even before he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with him in 1848. Engels was not just the foremost interpreter of Marx, but a theoretician in his own. His Socialism: Utopian And Scientific is considered a classic because it throws into relief an important contribution Marx made, of putting socialism upon a sound scientifc basis as opposed to the preceding unscientific and utopian types of socialism. The picture Engels drew was of a crowded pre-Marxian field, of various types of socialists attempting to critique capitalism, but none having the scientific rigour introduced by Marx, especially when he provided it a phisophical basis in the shape of dialectical materialism.
It is barely possible to see Marx as still relevant today, not because of the chances of world revolution, but because his bourgeoisie-proletariat dichotomy still holds. Indeed, it is almost as if capitalism has taken it over, and much of the welfare measures of modern capitalism started out as Marxist demands. Marx, like Darwin, Freud and Einstein, set in motion forces he personally did not know existed. However, unlike them, he was an avowed revolutionary. It is perhaps a measure of his greatness that there was no practical manifestation of his ideas in his lifetime, and had to wait until his birth centenary. However, it is perhaps a measure of his failure that by the time of his bicentenary, that practical manifestation had abandoned his philosophy.
The relevance he still has is mainly to the historian, for it is not possible to understand the 20th century without understanding the USSR, and it is not possible to examine the USSR without looking closely at its primary ideologue, Karl Marx.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.
It is barely possible to see Marx as still relevant today, not because of the chances of world revolution, but because his bourgeoisie-proletariat dichotomy still holds. Indeed, it is almost as if capitalism has taken it over, and much of the welfare measures of modern capitalism started out as Marxist demands.