Karl Marx died 120 years ago. But his ideas live on to educate and inspire a new generation of class fighters all over the world. Despite over a century of criticisms, distortions and persecutions one can see a dramatic revival of Marxist ideologies in mainstream discourses. Marx and Marxism are topics of renewed intellectual deliberations and appeal. The record sales of Marx’s masterpiece Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto are indicators of the renewed interest in Marxian thought. Last year, the attempts of the West Bengal school syllabus reforms committee to “downsize” Marx and Engels in the school syllabus of the state met with nationwide criticisms.
A recent survey of East Germans found 52% of them considering free market economy “unsuitable” and 43% wanting socialism back. The record crowd gatherings at Communist party congresses, the most recent siege of the state secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram by lakhs of party workers demanding a judicial probe into the solar scam and the newfound camaraderie between communists and Catholic Church functionaries in Kerala are but few examples of this renewed interest in Marxian ideology. The Marxists in Kerala have even given a place with Christ among the portraits of communist ideologues since according to them Christ was a great liberator. Interestingly, the Kerala Church which led the Liberation Struggle (1958-59) against the Marxists is demonstrating an unusual tolerance towards communism. Many elderly intellectuals who supported the Liberation Struggle now admit that doing so was a mistake. Much against Marx’s predictions of the working class coming to power through revolution; in Kerala they came to power through ballots, unprecedented in the history of communism.
For a substantial part of 20th century, Marxism was an important organising principle of societies comprising over one-third of the earth’s population. It is still relevant as a revolutionary political philosophy that changed the lives of millions. Marx and Engels are as important to the study of human history as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Marx greatly succeeded in synthesising the legacy of social knowledge since Aristotle. It has resulted in a better understanding of the prerequisites of human development that helps accelerate the process by which mankind was moving toward an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (1848). The desired system would be a communist society based on rational planning, co-operative production, equality of distribution and, most important, liberated from all forms of political, bureaucratic hierarchy.
Marx developed the most influential critique of capitalism in modern times. His model of a capitalist economy is one in which there is capital accumulation and consequently, a continuous reduction in the labour requirements of production. Capitalists could accumulate capital only by extracting surplus value from labour by paying workers less than the value of their contribution to production. This leads to lowering of wages and immiserating workers. The resultant system was internally contradictory, since those very workers were also the consumers who made up part of the market for the goods. To Marx, capitalist productive capacity would therefore outstrip purchasing power.
He envisaged constant capital as increasing more rapidly than the output of consumer goods so that the economic structure becomes increasingly imbalanced. To Marx stable economic growth requires a proportionate expansion of both the consumer and the capital goods industries. Thus, the law of capitalist motion that Marx discovered is surprisingly anticipatory of the principle of modern growth theorists — a growing equilibrium requires that the rate of increase in capacity must equal rate of increase in income and both must be expanding at a compound interest rate to avoid deflationary tendencies. His observations about the functioning of capitalism are to be taken seriously when such problems as monopoly, mass unemployment, excess production, recurrent crises, and other phenomena which he had described, become so prevalent.
Post globalisation neo-liberal policies in many nations have resulted in diminishing labour welfare. Casualization of labour through contractual agreements leads to treatment of man as machine, a piece of tradable merchandise. Employees, especially in the service sector, are overworked and underpaid. Profit-hungry outsourcing giants are luring youngsters into night shifts, which are harmful to the biological system of the youth in the long run. It is high time these exploited classes realise their rights.
To students and researchers, study of Marxism provides the tools for analysing capitalism and capitalist crises. To Marx, economic crises of the sort of the global recession of 2008 occur when there is a gap between reality and illusion. The money illusion fuelled by speculation created speculative bubbles. Too much of speculation by the “functionless investors” led to the explosion of the bubbles leading to growth collapse and recession. Recent crises in the capitalist world are leading to a revival of Marxism. The anti-communist propaganda, characteristic of the mainstream religious and caste combinations in India, has not succeeded in marginalising the communist ideology.
The richness of his legacy can be best appreciated when we understand the logic behind policies like deliberate lowering of target growth rate in China and rethinking towards the benefits of socialist principles that can insulate economies from the perils of long financial crises. Marxism needs to be more than an intellectual tool for academic intellectuals. As Marx has said, the point is not just to interpret the world but to change it.
But as the celebrated socialist economist Prabhat Patnaik says, “Communism in India today is being threatened in two ways: either being hegemonised by bourgeois liberalism, or as falling prey to a feudal-Stalinism. What is common to both these trends is an implicit lack of conviction about socialism, an implicit subscription to the neo-liberal ‘development’ agenda, and an implicit denial of scope for people’s empowerment. Succumbing to either or both these threats would be disastrous and totally against the interests of the people. If socialism is to be brought back on the agenda, then an alternative de-Stalinised Marxism has to be practised.”
The writer is professor of economics at Christ University, Bangalore, and can be reached at email@example.com