200 years of Marx: Should we worry?

Marx is dead. The question is whether we should bury him or not. The answer might not be as easy as it appears

For the rare socialists among us, the epoch of anniversaries has arrived. Das Kapital’s 150th anniversary in autumn 2017 was immediately followed by the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in February 2018. The centenary of Russia’s October 1917 revolution has already been celebrated last year, albeit with less fanfare. Then, 2018 will also be the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the global social upheaval in 1968, following student demonstrations in Paris. Perhaps most important among all is the second birth century of Karl Marx, the Maharishi himself, which falls in May 2018. Celebrations in some countries have started by February.

Together, these anniversaries provide a unique opportunity to revisit Marx and his contribution, probably together with that of Frederick Engels – not easy to separate the two – to international politics, the economy and society at large. This is also an occasion to lead this discussion for the future. Is socialism dead? Is Marx still relevant? After two centuries, and in a completely transformed world, is there anything we can still learn from him?

Or, alternatively, should we bury and forget the master? Even if this discussion would finally lead to his irrelevancy to socio-economics systems of today and tomorrow, I guess this is a discussion we must engage in. It is relevant. Remember in recent years, the ‘Return of Marx’ was repeatedly stated, initially at the turn of the century as the so-called ‘globalisation’ was being discussed, then again in the wake of the great financial crisis of 2007-8.

Let’s start from scratch. Who was Marx? Our definitions might vary on where we stand, but fundamentally, he was nothing but a writer and, maybe, a philosopher. Like in the case of all great philosophers, perhaps more than 90% of what he said was pure rubbish and of no use today. What matters is the remaining 10%. That, with our reluctance to admit it, can still be worth a revisit – even in a completely different backdrop. First, Marx was a prolific writer. He wrote like a machine. (Not surprisingly because he made a living from it.) There were times he was said to sleep only for four hours a day. (Interestingly, two other individuals said to have a similar lifestyle were Margret Thatcher and Ayn Rand.) His writings cover topics that normally don’t fall into what is called ‘Marxist literature’ today.

Is socialism dead? Is Marx still relevant? After two centuries, and in a completely transformed world, is there anything we can still learn from him?

It’s useful to start our journey there. Two disclaimers: First, I am not an expert in Marxist literature. There may be many things I might have missed. Second, an article of a bit more than thousand and five hundred words is hardly sufficient for a comprehensive analysis. We move ahead with that understanding. What fascinates a contemporary reader most is what Marx wrote on British India.

“The political unity of India,’ he wrote, “… more consolidated, and extending farther than it ever did under the Great Moguls, was the first condition of its regeneration. That unity, imposed by the British sword, will now be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph. The native army, organised and trained by the British drill-sergeant, was the sine qua non of Indian self-emancipation, and of India ceasing to be the prey of the first foreign intruder. The free press, introduced for the first time into Asiatic society, and managed principally by the common offspring of Hindoos and Europeans, is a new and powerful agent of reconstruction. … From the Indian natives, reluctantly and sparingly educated at Calcutta, under English superintendence, a fresh class is springing up, endowed with the requirements for government and imbued with European science. Steam has brought India into regular and rapid communication with Europe, has connected its chief ports with those of the whole south-eastern ocean, and has revindicated it from the isolated position which was the prime law of its stagnation. The day is not far distant when, by a combination of railways and steam-vessels, the distance between England and India, measured by time, will be shortened to eight days, and when that once fabulous country will thus be actually annexed to the Western world.”

This, written in 1853, sixteen years before Mahatma Gandhi was born, was arguably the most prognostic statement of the days about India. In this single paragraph, Marx spoke about the importance of India’s political unity, self-rule, free press, the emerging class of Indian entrepreneurs, science, communication, infrastructure and international trade. This insight was absent even to Nehru’s mind at Indian independence nearly a century later. Indians understood it much later – some 45 long years after independence, following the 1992 liberalisation.

Then, Marxism – what he was most known for was more an economic model than a political one. Like in the case of all models, the limitations of the creator seem to have played a significant part in its formation. An outsider, Marx saw industry from a distance. He had never been to a factory floor. A writer, he had no firsthand interactions with the industry. He formed theories only based on what he saw. He saw the grand success of the investors. He saw them amassing wealth, while the workers, paid only for contribution of labour, earned a meager amount With absolutely no idea about the massive risk of the investors (Capitalists – a term coined by Marx to which we too give undue legitimacy by blind use), Marx thought they are a redundant force.

“Whence comes this surplus-value?’ asked he “… It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force — the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?”

Marx’s solution was to separate labour time worked and labour power. An adequately productive worker can produce an output value greater than what it costs to pay him. Although his wage seems to be based on hours worked, in an economic sense, this wage does not reflect the full value of what the worker produces. Effectively, it is not labour that the worker sells, but his capacity to work. He termed the difference ‘surplus value’. What the capitalist does is make work a commodity that costs less than what it brings back. By eliminating the ‘capitalists’, Marx assumed, the workers would be better off. They, he assumed, would receive the ‘surplus value’.

Centuries later, we see the fallacy of this model. Capital comes at a cost. Not all investments work. The cost of capital is the justification of the risk of the investor. Elimination of that will make the entire system collapse. It isn’t such an easy equation. Then, communism. Contrary to common knowledge, little was common between the utopian system proposed by Marx and the communist systems that emerged in the early to mid-twentieth century. Marx envisaged a society ruled by proletariats (working class people). What emerged was a one-party statist system, which just like when the monarchs that preceded it, masses had no control of either electing or eliminating. The key characteristic of a communist system is the monopoly of power exercised by the local Communist Party. This method of government is assimilated post-WWII to a dictatorship. The reign of the Party was presented as the exclusive expression of the will and interests of the proletariat. A communist system of government is also distinguished by the practice of centralism and, in economic terms, a planned economy, possibly co-existing in some cases with a form of market economy in certain sectors of activity. Such systems never offered what Marx thought a class struggle would to masses.

One critical question that recurs: If communism were such a failure, how could it once have ruled nearly half of the world’s population? Shouldn’t it have been replaced by a better system. (Even now, five countries – China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba – are governed by systems that can be termed as ‘communist’.) The answer is apparent.Systems of governance freely evolve and transform  only in open societies. Communist societies are closed to ideas and changes. So these systems continue – till they hit the wall, like the Soviet Union did. At that critical point, they transform to a market democracy. In 10 years, some of these five countries might be in the opposite camp. It is just that they haven’t reached that critical point yet. Still, that does not per se make Marx irrelevant. Workers’ thinking even in free societies are still somewhat dominated by Marxist philosophy. A sizable percentage of workers still feel exploited by the system.

A fact: Only one percent of the world’s population has improved their real wealth  significantly (inflation adjusted incomes) in the seven decades following WWII. If the rest feel their lifestyles are better, it is only due to technological advancement and not due to individual wealth creation. Approximately 99% of the world’s population have to work harder for survival rather than enjoying leisure time, as predicted by economists in mid-last century.

Certainly, it is not as bad as it was a century before, and Marxism is not the answer. Still, we have not reached a stage that makes Marx or even Marxism completely irrelevant. Yes, it is still valid to a level even a business magazine entails a revisit.