Tuesday December 05, 2023

Marx’s enduring appeal

May 05, 2021

Karl Marx’s ideas of public ownership of land, banks, enterprises and communications, progressive income tax, free education, economic planning, have little resonance in our country. For a large majority of the people, Marx is a remote figure. Others brush aside his ideas by holding up a distorted version of them and pointing out its demerits.

That we care little of Marx’s ideas is remarkable given their extraordinary importance in our time. China, for instance, takes Marx seriously. His ideas are the foundation of China’s ruling ninety-million strong Communist Party. And China’s astonishing development with five-year plans comes from taking up all of Marx’s ideas noted above. China’s leader Xi Jinping acknowledged this fact at the World Conference on Marxism in Beijing three years ago asserting ‘our belief in the scientific truth of Marxism, which has not only profoundly changed the world, but also China.’

Like it or not, Marx’s ideas are alive as ever. Their adherents are more numerous than at any time in history; and their appeal to the working people is stronger than ever.

In our country, we ignore Marx’s ideas and yet they refuse to go away; We propagate their demerits and yet they persist.

What then is the enduring appeal of Marx’s ideas that we steadfastly refuse to acknowledge?

There is no better way to answer this than by exploring how Marx explains the history of the evolution of a capitalist society, and how it must give way to a better one.

For Marx, ‘the history of all existing hitherto societies is the history of class struggles.’ By this he means that history is driven by the working people striving to get fair payment for their work. Thus, slaves fought slave-owners and eventually slavery was abolished. But its abolition only paved the way for feudalism, and a new way of abusing the working people rooted in the serf-lord relationship.

Feudalism lasted a long enough time to be regarded as ‘the divinely ordained natural order of things.’ Still, like slavery before it, it couldn’t escape the conflict inherent within it – that of serfs and lords in constant opposition to each other. Hence, several serf revolts and several millennia later in late 18th century Europe; the serf-lord relation was no longer sustainable. It impeded progress as it was not compatible with the freer worker-employer relationship required by the new ways of producing goods and services. Feudalism had to be ‘burst asunder’, which it was by the French Revolution of 1789 that abolished feudal institutions, rights and restrictions, privileges, laws and rules, as well feudal tariffs and taxes that inhibited trade and industry.

Sprouting from its ruins was capitalist industry and society, with its own ideas of private enterprise, free trade and competition, constitutionalism, a secular state with civil liberties championed by Adam Smith, Carlyle, Voltaire, Rousseau. Their latest versions see in capitalist society the end of history – that is, they see it as incontrovertible, its overthrow impossible to imagine.

But nothing is incontrovertible in society. Ideas, views, conceptions, laws, rules, change as living conditions change, which change with technical progress and with the new ways of producing goods and services. Things are forever in flux, in the process of becoming, maturing and giving way.

As with slavery’s abolition, feudalism’s abolition didn’t abolish the abuse of the working class. It only created a new way to abuse them, this time rooted in the worker-capitalist relation, with the capitalist and the worker in constant opposition to each other.

Hence, the process repeats itself. Society splits into two great opposing camps – capitalists and workers. In greedy pursuit of profits factories multiply, capitalism grows and so do the working people and their political awareness. Marx explains this as follows: ‘large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people …maintenance of wages, this common interest...unites them. And in the face of always united capital…their association takes on a political character.’

As profits grow and wages stagnate, common people’s lives worsen. Rising prices, unemployment, war, illiteracy, hunger, malnutrition make it evident that the government is unfit any longer to rule because it ‘cannot help letting [people] sink into such a state that it has to feed [them] instead of being fed by [them].’ The situation badly needs to change.

Capitalism has to be burst asunder. It was burst asunder in China. But not yet in our country because of two main reasons: One, capitalism or the rule of sugar mafias, land mafias, drug mafias, cronies, establishment, etc, does not break down mechanically. It is versatile, backed by popular mandate and by the mass media which daily perpetuates the status quo. And lurking beneath its democratic veneer is a scary security and legal apparatus, which batters and subdues serious opposition.

And two, because workers must have a strong political party to wrest power, which they do not have. Without such a party, workers lose their political roots. They can’t win the hearts and minds of the common people, nor can they effectively criticize the status quo and spread ideas that are sensitive to their suffering. Such ideas become a force only when they grip the masses. Only then can capitalism be burst asunder. Such then are Marx’s ideas about the evolution of capitalist society.

Their world-wide appeal reflects not just the growing resentment against the sickness of capitalism, its stark inequalities, its richness for a few and unemployment, hunger, disease, insecurity for others, but also the fact that they give coherence and unity to the working class’s political struggle. And they give them an understanding of their historic mission to replace capitalism with a better society in which basic human needs and the interests of the common people are the driving force of economic life, not the desire for money and material gain.

The writer is a freelance contributor.