By Vikas Datta
A huge statue of Karl Marx was unveiled in his birthplace in the German city of Trier to mark his 200th birth anniversary on May 5 — and it was donated by the Chinese government. But wasn’t China’s move towards market capitalism, even more than the Soviet Union’s demise, the final epitaph for this political economist who had sought to warn us of the crisis of capitalism?
Evidently not. As the 2008 crisis and the subsequent backlash against globalisation, the fears of unbridled capitalism and the apprehension over the virtual economy and technology shows, Marx (1818-83) may have been wrong on a lot of things, but right on others. As such, his relevance has only increased, not decreased in our neo-liberal age.
For one, his theory that society has economic drivers, not just by the ownership of the means of production but also by the relationship between the owners and workers, has been validated. So has been his view of capitalism’s propensity for monopoly — borne out by the spate of acquisitions of smaller companies, by bigger ones, especially technology firms.
And then we have long owed to Marx — even though indirectly — benefits like minimum wages, worker protection, welfare systems and social security, unions, paid holidays, scholarship and a progressive income tax, among others.
He is also considered to be one of the founders of modern social sciences, and as a talented economist, helped the world understand capitalism — conceded by no less than billionaire businessman George Soros.
The spectre he warned of in the 19th century may not have come true when his and his associate Friedrich Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto” came out in 1849, for capitalism then was still “foundering, local, fragmented and timid”, as former Greek Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis wrote in an article for The Guardian.
“And yet Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing-all-dancing capitalism.”
“Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world much like our own, teetering fearfully on the edge of technological innovation,” said Varoufakis.
He also contends that the manifesto proved itself “albeit belatedly” as it took the Soviet Union’s decline and fall and “the insertion of two billion Chinese and Indian workers into the capitalist labour market for its prediction to be vindicated”.
Even The Economist, otherwise no fan, terms Marx a “brilliant thinker” and holds “his diagnosis of capitalism’s flaws is surprisingly relevant”, for “the post-war consensus that shifted power from capital to labour and produced a ‘great compression’ in living standards is fading” and capitalism is again out of control.
And it is also obvious why China still venerates him. Its rise from one of the world’s poorest countries to an economic powerhouse, even before it labelled its new approach “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, was more on Marxist lines — as Linda Yueh argues in the “The Great Economists” (2018) — than what Lenin and his party did in Russia.
It was actually Marx’s identification with his work’s initial but most long-lasting practical manifestation — the Soviet Union — that accounts for most of the opprobrium with which he was, and is, viewed. However, this was a modified form of Marxism, for Lenin, who was an immensely gifted political theorist but intensely practical too, had majorly transformed it.
Marxism-Leninism changed the focus from an industrialised state to a developing one, conceived a party to serve as a vanguard for the peasants and workers to seize power, and in the process, gave an entire new meaning to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Consequently, Marx became identified with a totalitarian system.
But, he was more of a theorist than a man with a definite vision (as like Lenin or Mao were), and he did change his mind on various issues, especially his dismissal of bourgeois democracy as a means to ameliorate the lot of the proletariat.
And then Marx was not only about economics. Among his talented group of defenders, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School of sociologists and cultural theorists showed his theories also explained culture and mass media.
There is much we still need to learn from Marx — and (paraphasing him) have nothing to lose but our ignorance.