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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 48 New Delhi November 17, 2018

Relevance of the Thoughts of Karl Marx in 21st Century Mainstream Thinking

Sunday 18 November 2018


by Kalyan Guha

Karl Marx, a name to reckon with by every person who is aware of the proceedings of political economy of a state or a group of states, was born at Trier on French-German border on the side of Germany on May 5, 1818 a two-hour journey by train from Boppard. As Martin Kampchen, the scholar-emeritus of Viswa Bharati University and a resident of Santiniketan for a long time, wrote recently in an editorial page of The Telegraph of Kolkata on June 28, 2018 remembering his childhood days in the hometown of his birth and referring to Marx’s birthplace from a different perspective. I quote his comments, “In Trier, we experience Marx’s life and achievements as part of the German struggle for independence from regional sovereigns, in favour of a liberal social system, and to gain justice for exploited workers and craftsmen.” It is a social outlook.

His idea of communism and emancipation of the working class through an alternative system of ‘class struggle’ concretised later in his exile leaving Germany and moving from place to place, that is, from Paris and then to London. Marx as a journalist drew wrath from the King and the power that is around the kinghood, the local overlords and moved from place to place with his family. On May 5, 2018, the bicentenary of the birth of a powerful thinker who nudged the minds of many to rethink and relook at the bourgeois economy from altogether a reawa-kened mindset, Karl Marx has been variously rechristened as the “Prophet of the last two centuries”, the “Messiah for the downtrodden” or the ‘Great Seer’ for the emancipation of the working class in future.

The eventful years of the three-fourth period of the 20th century in Russia, China and other places prove that he was an outstanding visionary of the consequences of the events in the post-Industrial Revolution phase of the European political economy in a new period of class struggle. Will he be described as a historian, a political scientist, a philosopher or an economist or a social scientist? The vast canvas of scholarship he built up mainly in his exile in Paris and Britain was sweeping in expanse. People now wonder at what he had not read and explained (I deliberately avoided him mentioning as an analyst as it is too narrow a term cocooning him to a narrow shelf). He was a colossal intellectual giant both in his cerebral rotundity (in physical annotation!) and a massive writer of pages after pages either in his notebook/diaries or typescript (mostly with his lifelong friend, Frederick Engels). His main writings (very few of these are perused by the people who avow their faith in him) include Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, commonly known as Paris Manuscript, the Holy Family (1845), The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), The Cologne Communist Trial (1852), The German Ideology (1845-46), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1867), Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) and the Civil War in France (1871). However, The Communist Manifesto, in collaboration with Engels, in 1848 and the three volumes of Capital (two volumes were published by Engels after Marx’s demise in 1883) complete his more or less wide writing canvas.

When Marx was dead by 1883, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the first volume of Capital was published during his life in 1859 and 1876 respectively. Such a massive thinker remains uncompetitive even today in the history of thinking in political economy. Even Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill (his writings on the Principles of Political Economy), the harbingers of economics of capitalism and redefining the nuances of political economy, wrote much less than Marx. If one evaluates the impact of their thoughts on the social and economic settings of 19th and 20th centuries, Marx stands taller in reach, stature and wide outlook. The strides of capitalism took a long three-century period to develop or degenerate from the days of the Industrial Revo-lution into the current state judged especially from the point of view of the state of living of the common people. But the proclamation of The Communist Manifesto took the entire European part of Russia, France and the states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and other states in the Eastern Block of Europe by storm in a brief span of time starting from operatively the days of the Paris Commune. An endeavour in that direction was brewing from the days of the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The impact was massive in dimension assessing from the magnitude of anger and deprivation among the workers (the proletariat in general), though sporadic in nature.

Even after the dismantling of the USSR in 1991, the writings and predictions of Marx pop up frequently when the ‘crisis of capitalism’ torments the common man of losing livelihood, wage deprivation and incidence of poverty because of depression in the economy, closure of the huge banking institutions for non-performing assets or decline in industrial production on account of loss of demand for products. Farmers commit suicide in the unfortunate corners of the world due to the persistence of hunger, depredation, deprivation, civil wars and abysmal gap between the rich and the poor in Asia, Africa, Latin America and fragmented countries of greater Yugoslavia. That the world is not evenly well-off is proved time and again by the thoughts of Marx and his suggestions for redress. Howsoever it may be arduous, it is not insurmountable.

Marx was convinced in a dispatch New York Daily Tribune in its March 22, 1853 edition:

“Society is undergoing a silent revolution, which must be submitted to, and which takes no more notice of human existences it breakes down than an earthquake regards the houses it subverts. The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.”

Marx was so emphatic in his vision!

Whenever the crisis of the market economy recurs, people scamper for references even now for what the ‘Great Seer’ wrote and how the crisis can be overcome. Karl Marx is a composite individual in the mould of a social scientist, an economist, a political theorist, a philosopher in the dialectics of eventuality and, above all, a democrat vouchsafing for ‘free association of people in a free society’ experimenting in alternative economic dispensation where people will be free from alienation from others and tools they operate. The Manifesto in its first prediction says , ‘ a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, ......either in a revolutionary reconsti-tution of society at large, or in the common ruin of contending class.’ Marx mentioned in his Paris Manuscript, ‘ an increasing extent his own labour confronts him as another man’s property.’ (page 24 of EPM of 1844, Aakar Books Classics, 2016) The labourers are given less wage and the capital accrues more surplus to the owners of capital. In sequence the capital accumulates in the luxuries and the property for the capitalist and at the cost of misery for the labour class (the proletariat).

Marx’s prescience envisioned a common (communist) society of workers, farmers, innovative scientific and humanistic intellects in a free society in the 21st century and thereafter, based on material reality in a material world in an exploitation-free social system. A powerful prognosis in an imperfect world indeed!

Lastly Marx observes, “History is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends.” (The Holy Family, Ch. VI, 1854)

[Acknowledgement: I am personally thankful to Sankar Ray, a Marxist scholar, for his valuable suggestions in the process of writing the article—K.G.]

The author, an economist, formerly belonged to NABARD.

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