May 5, 2018, marked the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx, the German philosopher, economist and revolutionary. So, is Marxism relevant today, even in the 21st century ? Well, the very fact that a liberal newspaper like the New York Times ran its headline as “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You were right” speaks volumes of his relevance today.
So what makes this 200-year-old phenomenon called Marxism so special that it is still being debated fiercely today? Well, simply put, the answer to this probably lies in Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism which explains the continuous crisis in capitalism today. In economics and the social sciences, Marx accomplished what Darwin achieved in biology. He presented a systematic and economic worldview of the historical flow of events, through dialectics and evolution.
Marx explained that previously, we had a slave society which transformed into the feudal system of kings and princes and dukes. After the Industrial Revolution and the exponential rise in scientific discoveries, this system evolved into capitalism, which destroyed the old feudal system and created two new classes – the ruling classes, who owned the means of production, and the working classes which sold their labour for a salary. According to Marx, this would eventually evolve into socialism, where the workers would take over control of means of production. Finally, this would lead to communism, where a classless society would be formed. Hence, Marx had presented a scientific framework based on economic relations to study history and predict the future.
Is communism a failed idea of the 20th century and irrelevant in the 21st?
Today, many economists may argue that capitalism is still strong and thriving. They may also say that capitalism has been able to get millions out of poverty, while the so-called communist countries or socialist states inspired by Marxism have collapsed. So, isn’t this a rebuttal to Marx’s economics and his socialist dream ?
This is a very strong argument and is true to an extent. However, like Marx did, we also need to study this issue dialectically. I am not a staunch supporter of communism who will support all the aspects of the ‘Soviet Model’ and blame Gorbachev and Khrushchev for the Union’s collapse. Neither am I one of those critics or escapists who consider that the Soviet Union didn’t indulge in socialism at all. Instead, I would like to take a more balanced approach.
Based on the working conditions in the Victorian era, Marx had predicted that the workers (who used to live in devilish conditions, while working 15-16 hours a day on a meagre salary) would rise up against the capitalist classes and their regimes, trigger a revolution and take power. This, as Marx predicted, happened in many European countries like Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, where workers and Marxist parties became revolutionary and tried to take power on multiple occasions. But they were often crushed brutally.
Only in Russia, under the dynamic leadership and strong ideals of Lenin, did the communist party manage to take power and hold on to it, despite severe criticism and attacks from Western powers. Similar revolutions happened in China, Vietnam, Cuba – and many countries also adopted a more democratic version of socialism like India and Egypt.
Hence, after World War II, it would definitely seem that socialism was the triumphant and the better-planned economic model. The 5-year plans, heavy industrialisation and collectivised agriculture, developed under Stalin, became a role model for newly-developed or developing nations which lacked capitalist might – India under Nehru, China under Mao, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, Cuba under Fidel Castro, Egypt under Nasser, etc.
However, in my opinion, the economic failures of the Soviet Model started emerging when they failed to adopt innovation, market feedback and consumer satisfaction into their model of a planned economy. Hence, the model which had worked very well for heavy industries, space research, defence (and other allied sectors) failed to work for the automobile, consumer goods and later on, the computer and telecom sectors.
But, to say that Lenin and Stalin’s model of socialism in the Soviet Union was a failure would be a false statement. If there’s been a model of socialism which worked in the 20th century, it was Stalin’s planned economic model which was adopted in different forms in newly-developed third world countries. The model even helped some poor countries come out of poverty.
However, it is true that it developed its own economic contradictions. Furthermore, the geo-political factors behind the Cold War also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Is Marx’s prediction of a ‘capitalist crisis’ coming true?
After the 2008 economic crisis in US, Europe and rest of the world, Marx has been brought out of the coffin. In the West, the interest in Marxism is rising fast. The phenomenon of Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Syriza in Greece, Melenchon in France (among others) show that the Left is on the rise. In fact, socialism is not a taboo even in the most capitalist countries like the US.
The global economy is failing to provide jobs for the unemployed – and the growth rates are only resulting in jobless growth. Why is this so? Well, as Marx had written in “Das Kapital” – the capitalist economy only leads to concentration of wealth in a few hands. This is well demonstrated by the latest Oxfam report on global inequality which says that the world’s richest 1% get 82% of the wealth. So, with technological automation and the hegemony of finance capital, the supply of jobs get dried up. Manufacturing activities decrease – and the virtual economy of real estate, banking, credit, interest take over. It’s not surprising that countries in Europe (like Greece) are facing a severe economic recession and massive unemployment.
So, what is the remedy? Can capitalism be overthrown by revolution ? No. This seems unlikely in the modern, democratic, liberal framework. Marx always maintained that capitalism will create its own contradictions, which will pave the way for alternatives. So, can 20th century socialism be an alternative? This too seems very unlikely. One of the debates which happened in the early 20th century between social democratic partied and communist parties was centred around the ‘evolutionary path’ and the ‘revolutionary path’ to socialism. It looks like this debate can give us some insights into a possible road to socialism.
The welfare-state model of social democratic countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and even Canada, have a lot to offer. These countries have espoused the welfare-state model of taxing the rich at a high rate and using that tax revenue for ensuring universal healthcare, education and a better quality of life. This social democratic model looks at taming capitalism and using it to improve social and economic indicators – and it seems to have worked well.
This social democratic model can pave the way for our advent into a socialist future. Even China has understood that there is a need for a balance between markets and state control – and have called it the ‘socialist market economy’. And they have seemingly been successful in bringing billions out of poverty and providing jobs to the unemployed. Hence, they are true Marxists, as Sitaram Yechury puts it: “Marxism is based on a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. As conditions change, if your analysis does not change then in my opinion you are not a Marxist.”
To summarise, let’s go back to the question we asked at beginning: is Marxism relevant in the 21st century? Yes it is, because Marxism offers a tool to understand history and economics – and it single-handedly offers an explanation for the global capitalist crisis, which no other theory probably offers. And what is the possible solution? An evolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism via the welfare-state model may well be the way forward.
To conclude, Marxism is a ‘creative science’ and not a dogma, as Sitaram Yechury puts it eloquently in one of his lectures. It is a means to an end. The ultimate goal, in my eyes, is socialism.