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Opinion

May 4, 2018

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Relevance of Marx today

“Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, says Karl Marx in his famous 11th and last thesis on Feuerbach. Has there been any philosopher in this world to whom these words apply more than to Marx himself?

It has been repeatedly stated that ‘Marxism has returned’. The phrase initially made a comeback at the turn of the century as the concept of ‘globalisation’ was being discussed, and then again in the wake of the great recession of 2007-08. Marx, it seems, is inextricably linked to workers’ movements and political currents.

Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany, on May 5, 1818, and died on March 14, 1883, in London. He was a philosopher, revolutionary, sociologist, historian and economist. Marx has influenced both life and literature of the 20th century deeply and extensively.

Tomorrow will be Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. Celebrating Marx is of great relevance to the working class. From politics to philosophy to academics, there is no denying that Karl Marx has left a lasting imprint on the face of history.

Marx did not change the world by leading the life of a political activist, but by leading the life of a revolutionary philosopher and scholar. He changed the world just by interpreting it. What comes to most people’s mind when they think of Karl Marx is his impact on politics and communism, and then on social democracy. However, in real terms his influence has been much wider. Marxist ideas have influenced feminism, economic theory, sociology and philosophy, to name but a few areas of study. His approach and method of studying society can be and have been applied to many fields.

We still get inspiration from ideas that find their origins in Marxism, directly or indirectly. These include studies and discourse on the problems of globalisation, stagnation in many European economies, the great recession of 2007-2008, increased inequality and class polarisation.

Marx developed a scientific methods of analysis – be it for analysing economy, history, class structure or the very basis of the capitalist system. There are three interrelated components in his work: historical materialism, socio-economic analysis of capitalism and the politics of class revolution. Marxism has also indirectly affected the humanities, especially through its interpretation of culture. What distinguishes Marx from other social critics is the interaction of his philosophy with history, his detailed analysis of the economics of capitalism and the way he has combined historical and economic developments to predict the downfall of capitalism and its eventual replacement with socialism.

Marxism appeals to people because it provides a framework for the evolution of societies akin to Darwin’s idea of evolution of nature. Capitalism brought with it a modern society that was based on science and was secular, wealthy and politically democratic, while also promoting human liberation and economic exploitation. A socialist future transcends capitalism by destroying the latter’s exploitative elements (the domination of capital and market relations), which were originally necessary for progress, and developing those needed for further emancipation (an economy for public good rather than private profit, and real participatory democracy). Hence, socialism is seen as the heir to the Enlightenment.

For Marxists, socialism – as a system that embraces elements of emancipation such as modernisation, and is unfettered by capitalism – not only promotes the development of the productive forces but also promises the birth of a higher level of civilisation. Capitalism has gone through a lot of changes in 200 years. But its economic system is still based on the exploitation of wage labour, which produces surplus value; and surplus value is mainly unpaid wages.

Private ownership of productive assets gives rise to economic exploitation (profit). In addition, armies of executives and professionals grow and have significant powers of control. This has resulted in the making of a ‘new bourgeoisie’ that has cultural capital. Members of this new bourgeoisie control the creation of knowledge and dominate the fields of science and technology, education and the media. Ownership of productive assets drives the activity of these organisations. Companies such as Google, Disney and Netflix operate for profit and their economic developments are largely determined by their market position and quest for profits.

Modern sociology is concerned with race, ethnicity and gender relations as a form of domination and subordination which predate capitalism. However, such relationships, as important components of identity politics, cannot be equated with economic exploitation which remains the driving force for capitalism. Identity politics calls for justice and equal rights before the law, not transformation of capitalism. It promotes individual liberation and not eradication of economic exploitation. Equal access to unequal structures of ownership may strengthen and not weaken the composition of the class system based on property.

As international companies seek to reduce labour costs, the greater mobility of capital and cheapening of transport enables manufacturing units to be located in areas of low-paid labour. Electronic communication under neo-liberalism promotes the mobility of capital with almost no restrictions and, in doing so, changes the combination of the factors of production in low income countries. Hence, the focus on class conflict can no longer be contained within the boundaries of a nation state.

Karl Marx’s ideas are still alive and relevant in today’s world, and can answer the complex and difficult questions faced by capitalism in the 21st century. His ideas and methods of analysis can still be used to interpret the world in order to change it for the better.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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