Marx’s chequered legacy

“Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” read a widely circulated New York Times’ article on April 30 anticipating his 200th birth anniversary on May 5. “Don’t Celebrate Karl Marx. His Communism has a death count in the millions,” the USA Today wrote a week after. When a statue of the philosopher was unveiled in his birthplace in Trier, Germany on May 5, protestors greeted it with banners reading either “Down with Capitalism” or “Father of All Dictators.”


This, in a nutshell, explains the divisive emotions Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883) – philosopher, revolutionary, sociologist, historian, and economist – still ignites, two centuries on.


Evidently, his ideas are still influential thereby generating the polarizing reactions – of utmost admiration or utter repugnance. Marx’s postulations are both simple as well as subject to various interpretations.


“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” he declared in the Communist Manifesto (1848). Co-written with Friedrich Engels, here Marx espoused his theory of “dialectical materialism” arguing that all the political and historical events result from the conflict of contradictory social forces, for instance between ‘Haves and Haves-not,’ caused by material needs.


In Marx’s masterpiece, Das Kapital (1867), he further elaborated the idea of “surplus value” of workers’ labour, a mere commodity in the hands of capitalists (oppressors). The surplus value is the differences between the value of the commodity the worker produce and their wages. By keeping the wages at subsistence level, the capitalist pockets the surpluses.


In Marx’s universe, the core conflicts, therefore, are between the ruling class or the bourgeoisie and the working class, or the proletariat. The former owns the means of production – factories, land, plant, power et al, in which the latter is forced to sell their labour, in form of subsistence wages. Every society passes through different stages of such class struggles – primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally global, stateless communism.


Even religion was believed to be perpetuating the existing hierarchy, making Marx to denote it as an ‘Opium of the people’ in the hands of ruling class to give a grand, but a false illusion to the working class.


The idea of the classless and stateless society, thus, define both Marx’s and Engels’s idea of communism which would result from “overthrow of all existing social conditions”. It serves as a template for all communist revolutions, thereafter, since Bolshevik Revolution (1917). Once the capitalist society is overthrown, Marx envisaged ‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’ where the means of production pass from private to collective ownership, eventually establishing a classless and stateless communist society.


Extremely idealistic and utopic, however, his theory was found dreadfully wanting in application, as allegedly demonstrated by various communist regimes around the world. A ready fodder for its critic.


“Communist regimes produced the greatest ideological carnage in human history, killing more than a hundred million people in the last century. While some apologists claim it is unfair to Marx to blame him, the seeds of tyranny were there from the start,” the USA Today article noted.


“Marx shouldn’t be judged for the crimes that his followers committed decades after his death,” defended European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiling his statue.


Why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century when “his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete,” Professor Peter Singer wrote in an article in Project Syndicate. “The most important takeaway from Marx’s view of history is negative: the evolution of ideas, religions, and political institutions is not independent of the tools we use to satisfy our needs, nor of the economic structures we organize around those tools, and the financial interests they create. If this seems too obvious to need stating, it is because we have internalized this view. In that sense, we are all Marxists now,” he added.


In other words, Marx’s legacy will be revived time and again till ‘class divide’ of various kind exists and the idea of equitable distribution becomes an inherent and integral part of capitalism.