Why Marx Continues To Be Relevant Even 200 Years After His Birth

Posted by metamorfosis in History, Society
July 20, 2017

“You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism,”  Terry Eagleton in the preface to his book, “Why Marx Was Right”.

However, to understand the ‘trouble’ about this ‘system’, one must nurture Marx’s writings on the State again. The main objective of the Marxist theory of the State is rooted in the ‘property relations’ of a prevalent mode of production. Reason and idea form the philosophical backbones of  Marxist doctrine. The reason or logic is dialectics, while the idea is materialism. Therefore, a blend of idea and matter is the starting point to the Marxist doctrine.

The Figure Of Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli, author of “The Prince”

The forefather of modern political thought in Europe was Machiavelli, who was a product of the Italian Renaissance. His doctrinal book, “The Prince“, led to a tectonic shift in the political discourse of Europe. He combined diplomacy with a certain degree of political realism to initiate what is known as ‘political modernity’.

“The Prince” almost serves as a Biblical text for modern political thinkers. Machiavelli’s distinction between public and private morality was a pioneering development that steered European political discourse for a really long time. This was the time when the mercantile class was emerging to restructure the feudal class structure of Europe, once and for all. However, the scientific temperament of Machiavelli could not manifest itself completely.

Europe After Machiavelli

The ‘social contract‘ tradition initiated by Thomas Hobbes in Europe continued the legacy of Machiavelli. The philosophical argument in favour of the new capitalist class in Europe was given by John Locke, often considered to be the first liberal theoretician, in his argument for a ‘limited state‘.

This was a remarkable development in the tradition of classical polity. Subsequently, economists like Jeremy Bentham started taking interest in politics. He equated the state with the ‘principle of utility‘ and stated that the only purpose of the state is to ensure maximum happiness for a maximum number of people. All these theories were in turn linked to the laissez faire doctrine, used by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations”, and were conducive for the functioning of a free market.

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham

The Birth Of Karl Marx And The Industrial Revolution

At this historical juncture, the most remarkable leap in human history took place in Germany when Karl Marx was born in 1818. His life and theory altered the course of human history for the next few centuries.

Technological innovation marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This also signified a qualitative transformation of the prevalent economic structure –  a transition from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial economy.

The year 1818 also marked the beginning of a revolution in the intellectual sphere – not in terms of ‘what’ we are thinking, but more on ‘how’ we are thinking. More specifically, the revolution wasn’t really about how ‘objective realities’ are interpreted. Rather, there was more emphasis on the dynamics of how an ‘objective reality’ is defined.

Furthermore, 1818 marked the beginning of another phase in European thought. This wasn’t along the lines of the ‘critique of pure reason‘ (as perceived by Kant) or the thoughts of Hegel (metaphysical narratives). Rather, this phase marked a new interpretation of philosophies on the basis of ‘entitlement’ and ‘correspondence’. The world of ‘objective existence’ corresponds to a reality. Human intellect and rationality interpret the ‘world of existence’. The factors and forces that act as determinants of the ‘objective existence’ are revealed – and therefore, the ‘world of existence’ is understood without any phenomenological illusion.

Immanuel Kant and Hegel

Karl Marx And The ‘Science Of Revolution’

For the last 200 years, Marx has been alive as a ‘spirit of science’ and not merely as a human being. This is what distinguishes him from other philosophers. A great scientist and a passionate revolutionary – he devoted his life for the freedom and happiness of humanity. Marx’s struggle against autocracy, obscurantism, socio-political oppression, ‘pseudo theories’ simply prove that he is the architect of the ‘scientific philosophy’ of revolution.

Here, Lenin’s evaluation of Marx is highly significant: “Marx’s philosophical materialism alone has shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished. Marx’s economic theory alone has explained the true position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism.” The deeper and broader the great historical process of the world’s revolutionary renovation, the brighter the light of scientific socialism. The inevitability of revolution is the spirit of the humanism which is reflected in his works.

Marx’s doctrines had a profound impact on the young Lenin.

The agony of human civilisation and the crisis of existence stand in the way of the transition from darkness to light. Marx shows the way to reach the destination of total liberation. His religion was humanism, because he knew that only humanism could transcend gender, caste, class and other criteria of discrimination. In fact, he was sceptical and more critical about the ‘world of existence’. Furthermore, the fact that reason exists beyond metaphysical dogmatism ultimately instigates us to redefine ‘liberation’. In this context, it should be mentioned that even the ‘liberation theology‘ fails to escape the commands of pre-conceived notions.

Humanism, Liberation And The Question Of Class

Here, Marx connected the question of ‘liberation’ with class interests. If we try to understand the evolution of philosophical interpretation from Plato’s time to Marx’s, we will find that the question of humanity lies at the centre of this evolution. It was far more important than the other questions raised during the course of this evolution.

More importantly, for perhaps the first time in the history of human civilisation, we find that the figure of the human occupies the centre stage in the thinking process, particularly concerning the question of the liberation of humanity. This was all due to the historical and epistemological enquiries of Marx.

Be it on surplus value, be it on capitalism and its inner contradictions, be it on class consciousness – we find in his all of Marx’s comments and explanations a social scientist who is trying to find remedies. At the same time, he also tried to pave the way for liberation from an unjust socio-economic system, by reinstating one which incorporated the philosophy of humanism in the true sense of term.

Why Is Marx Relevant Even Today?

It’s nearly been 200 years since Marx was born – and he is still relevant simply because his quest for justice is still relevant. Our civilisation still quests for justice – not on the basis of utopian speculations, but on the basis of the ‘realisation of history’. Marx harmonises the ethics of human existence with the ‘historic value of humanity’ and finally liberates the very concept of revolution from illusion. He liberates the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as this phrase suggests nothing but the ‘dictatorship of democracy, justice and human values’.

So, Marx essentially redefines the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘revolution’ among many others. He is still relevant because of the existence of ‘pure reason’ and the justice his doctrines do to philosophy and the understanding of the human civilisation. Finally, his doctrines liberate the prevalent schools of philosophies from all kinds of dogmatism and illusion. At the same time, he also liberates all the methods of thinking and understanding which he developed by himself. In essence, he ‘constructed’ an understanding of the role of human beings in making history.

It can be argued that there is little to challenge Marx’s views on capitalism. The 2008 bank bailouts and the global protests against the neo-liberal economic system brings up the question of whether history is on the march again, or not.

Where will human civilisation finally reach? After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ‘court philosopher of global capitalism’, Francis Fukuyama, stated: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” On the other hand, Marx says that the existing system will not be stable if class conflict continues to prevail – it will finally culminate in a complete transformation of the existing system.

Francis Fukuyama had a different idea of how human history would unravel.

Marxism And The State

Marx was a philosopher who can be said to be truly ahead of his times. He criticised the functioning of the old capitalist system and stated that it was characterised by an oppression of the entire workforce by the property-owning classes. According to him, this was ensured by the liberal state, which was an instrument of class exploitation. To quote his words from the Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Marx did not view the State as a permanent institution – neither did he think that it had originated accidentally. There is a deep synchronic logic behind the development of the state as it does during a particular epoch of social evolution. This idea is contained in the concept of ‘historical materialism’.

The foundation of the State is deeply rooted in the ‘property relations’ of a society. It is a mechanism to support the prevalent ‘mode of production’, which is in turn influenced the prevailing forces and relations behind production. The State ensures class oppression to sustain its legitimacy through two mechanisms.

A later trend of Marxism, known as the ‘humanist school of Marxism’, has highlighted the nuances through which State oppression is furthered. According to them, the State uses the ideology of the ruling class to manipulate the psyche of the governed to manufacture consent in support of the rulers. This is known as the ‘ideological State apparatus’.

Parallel to this, the State also force to compel people to obey its laws. Marx also talked about the fact that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. This is the ‘self-contradiction of capitalism’, as was evident from the great depression of the 1930’s. He also predicted that the future course of human history would end with the establishment of a State-less, classless society.

Has The Figure Of Marx And The Ideology Of Marxism Become Redundant?

However, with the collapse of the USSR, and the backtracking by the People’s Republic of China (socialism with Chinese characteristics), Marx appeared to be redundant in contemporary politics. This trend was further cemented with Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” thesis taking the centre stage, the establishment of the Bretton Woods system and neo-liberal policies during the Thatcher-Reagan regime.

Reagan’s and Thatcher’s policies seemed to be the nail in the coffin for Marxist thought around the world.

Subsequently, a school of economists, known as the ‘neo classical school’ of thought, headed by Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick and Frederick von Hayek reinforced the old liberal school through its ‘neo’ version. This was a time when the global scenario seemed to be picture-perfect for the capitalist class. The only challenge to capitalism came from French philosophers like Jean Francois Leotard, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who claimed themselves to be ‘post structural’. Their main objective was to ‘deconstruct’ Marx.

These events can be compared with the exhuming of Oliver Cromwell’s body from the grave and then hanging him publicly, or the restoration of the French monarchy with the Bourbon Restoration. But none of these events could bring back the old order!

Bringing Marx Back From The Dead

Freedom from discrimination, exploitation, despotism, unstable social economic system, poverty, communalism, unequal distribution of wealth are still much desired. Be it a developed or a developing country, the scenario is more or less the same. Why are communist parties alive in the world? It is because they still believe in the humanitarian science of liberation. Communists accept the fundamental principles of Marxist doctrine, and that is why Marx remains majorly unchallenged even after 200 years.

While trying to academically analyse and understand human history, we find that Marxism is very much alive – not only as a theoretical discipline, but also as an approach to understanding as well as an inspirational ideology throughout which the liberation of humanity is very much possible.

Stunningly, Marx became relevant once again, just as he had predicted: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” This time, The Times Magazine cried out in despair on their front page, “He is back from his graveyard.”

The collapse of the USSR and socialism in East Europe were minor setbacks in the meta-narrative of Karl Marx. Ideas cannot be destroyed because they are bulletproof – and Marxism is a scientific idea.

Today, if people want to be relevant so that they can combat economic crises, ethnic antagonism, immigrant problems, religious fundamentalism and so on, then they should consult that old man with a beard, lying in his grave facing Herbert Spencer. He is smiling and saying, ” However the point is how to change it. If not now, when? It’s nearly 200 years and I am still unbeaten!”

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