The one simple and brilliant idea that Marx had was that the present economic arrangement is a product of the history of several centuries before.
There was a tremendous festival in honour of Karl Marx, celebrating the bicentenary of his birth under the aegis of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) in Patna. Being a Marx festival, it was a feast of ideas as well as the discovery and rediscovery of Marx’s work. Fifty five papers were read over five days—June 16-20. People from all the five continents were present. They covered 18 nations. As one would expect, we talked of capitalism, socialism, communism , Asia and especially India and China, globalisation and the financial crisis, feminism, Hegel’s philosophy and much else.
There were none of the vitriolic sectarian quarrels about Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky. Even the dismal position of the Indian communist parties was not mentioned except by one speaker—Ish Mishra—who said they had all failed. The demise of the Soviet Union has been a breath of fresh air for all who have been engaged in studying Marx. China is formally socialist but it does not act like an enforcer of its ideology as the USSR was. So, now, we can talk about just Marx and his ideas. So, who was Marx?
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the old town of Trier in Rhineland. At that time, there was no such entity as Germany. That happened in 1870. But, Prussia, the largest kingdom in the territory which would become Germany, had secured Rhineland from the French who had won it during the Napoleonic wars. France had introduced its liberal, modern habits in this corner of Prussia. There was tolerance of Jews in terms of their ability to pursue careers. Prussia brought the old discrimination back. Marx’s father changed his religion to Christianity so he could pursue his career as a lawyer.
Marx went to Bonn University to study law. He was a voracious reader from his schooldays onward. He also made copious notes on one side of a notebook, leaving the other side for his commentary on the text. Over his life, he filled hundreds of notebooks which have been deciphered (he had very bad handwriting), collected and published. But, even after 200 years of his birth and 135 years since his death, there is no complete set of his writings. The last edition, during the 1980s, of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels reached 49 volumes.
This is strange for a man who published only two books in his life time, Das Kapital,Volume One which is the better known one, though little read, even by Marxists. His most famous work co-authored with Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, is a classic which has been translated into all the languages of the world.
The one simple and brilliant idea that Marx had was that the present economic arrangement is a product of the history of several centuries before. It will also yield, in its own good time, to another superior arrangement. Capitalism, the then present arrangement, had just burst upon the scene with unprecedented productive powers. It was spreading around the world—globalising, as we would say today.
One part of all the economic arrangements is that there is a class which owns the vital inputs—land under feudalism, capital in the form of money or machinery under capitalism. There are other people who have to work for a living as slave or serf or worker. Each arrangement is exploitative. But, the next stage would see the supplanting of such unequal arrangements and the workers will replace capitalism with socialism, which will then, ripen into communism.
It is astonishing that the scribbling of a scholarly man sitting in his garret, churning out notebooks upon notebooks, had a profound impact even during his lifetime. Later, of course, the Russian Revolution made his name known all over the world—to many, a sign of hope and to others, as a sign of danger. Marx was listened to because, difficult as his economic writings were, they exhibited rational structure. Not all his forecasts proved correct. Capitalism has survived and has had more lives than a cat. The Russian experiment collapsed without a shot being fired.
Even so, the promise that a just society can be established by human endeavour and cooperation, rather than competition, and that it can be a basis for building an efficient economy continues to inspire people around the world. We can think of the Soviet Union as a premature rush to socialism before capitalism had suffered a serious decline . The more successful movement has been social democracy or democratic socialism, at least, in some European countries. Whether Marx was too confident of the power of his analysis or someone whose warnings led capitalism to reform itself will be a topic of debate forever. What is true is that few people have their ideas debated about 200 years after their birth . And, who knows, perhaps even after 300 years!
The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer