Marx at 200: was he right about anything?
Karl Heinrich Marx is often described by many to be one of the greatest (and divisive) political thinkers of the 19th century. His writings on the flaws and failures of capitalism have not only inspired countless revolutions across time, but has generated centuries of fierce debate among academics and theorists. A hugely influential and revolutionary philosopher, Marx did not live to see his ideas be carried out, but his impact is strikingly evident across so many aspects of life, that we ought to celebrate it, 200 years after the man was born.
Born on 5 May 1818 in Trier, Prussia (now Germany), Marx was the son of a successful Jewish lawyer, who inspired Marx to follow the same career path as himself. Marx studied law in Bonn and Berlin, and then the University of Jena where he received a doctorate in philosophy. In 1843, after a short spell as a journalist, Marx and his wife Jenny moved to Paris: a hotbed for radical thought. There he became a revolutionary communist, where he befriended his lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels. After being expelled from France, Marx spent two years in Brussels, where he worked with Engels to co-write ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Marx then moved to London, where he was to spend the remainder of his life, during which time he wrote his most distinguished piece to date, ‘Capital’.
Throughout his life, Marx traveled across Europe, where he saw the true scale of poverty and inequality across society. The more he traveled, the more he could see and explain through the unequal access to resources, the ownership of property and wealth.
He argued that the working class (proletariat) were being exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie), in that the ruling class were paying workers less wages than the total value of goods that they were producing; known as the surplus value. Not only could the ruling elite extract this value for profit, but they could also use their economic base for ideological control. This deeply infuriated Marx, because he knew the system was rigged. To him, profit was theft. Marx thought capitalism holds the seeds to its own destruction and that this concept of class struggle plays a central role in understanding society’s allegedly inevitable development from oppression under capitalism, to a socialist and ultimately classless society. How exactly would that occur in Marx’s view? Revolution and the overthrown of the class system.
He would outline his vision in 1847 where he, alongside Engels, published ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Together, they elucidate the materialist conception of history, as well as listing ten short-term goals for a communist state. These include the idea that property is owned publicly, and that education is free for all, proclaiming for “workers of the world, [to] unite”.
Despite his positive mind-set of a idealist future, Marx was not a popular figure among the general public. A point proven when only 11 people turned up to his funeral. But after his death in 1883, his philosophy and ideas flourished. Based on Marx’s ideology came communism, the realisation of a stateless society where all are equal. Communism became a global movement, gaining prominence in countries such as China, Cuba and Russia.
However, this utopian ideal failed to materialise, leading to poorly run economies and nasty dictatorships that tyrannised and impoverished its subjects. It lead to the slaughtering of tens of millions of people. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War in 1991, Francis Fukuyama marked what he liked to describe as the ‘end of history’. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government, effectively killing communism as a concept.
His prediction, that communism as a sociological structure would inevitably overthrow capitalism, was undisputedly proved wrong; with capitalism dominating the world system in the wake of globalization. Nevertheless, we should not discredit or reject Marx’s ideas too quickly, because his findings have continued to be relevant in so many different aspects of life.
Today, the global disparity between the rich and the poor is striking. 3.2 billion individuals sit at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Together they have 3% of global riches, despite representing 68.7% of the world population. As Marx predicted, capitalism has led to the rich becoming richer and poor remaining poor.
On top of that, he was right in thinking that capitalism would lead to boom/bust economics, in the form of financial crisis, recession and austerity. The most recent happening in 2008.
Unfortunately, Marx underestimated the ability of capitalism to make everybody richer by making products much cheaper. Since the 1980s – a period of time where capitalism was boosted under the leaderships of Margret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Regan in the United States – the number of people in absolute poverty had fallen by around 1 billion.
Marx was also wrong in understanding capitalism’s ability to reform itself, with the introduction of the welfare state being capable of redistributing wealth through taxation.
There is a lot to learn from Marx, but his solution was far worse than the disease. The School of Life brilliantly describe Marx as being like a doctor during the early days of medicine; he could recognise the nature of the problem at hand, although he had no idea how to go about curing it.
Was Marx right about anything? Of course he was, and many of the issues he outlined are sadly intact today. Marx had so many ideas, including alienation (Entfremdung) and how work turns people into machines. If you look at an Apple production line in China, you would not see his ideas as outdated, would you?
He is revered by many on the left in Britain, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Just look at the last Labour party manifesto, where you could see elements of Marxism embedded throughout, such as the nationalisation of the rail networks or the scrapping of university tuition fees. Their 40% vote share can still be a justification as to why Marxism is still relevant today, and how many of his ideas are still being implemented. He must have done something right if his ideas are still being embraced by millions.
We ought to see Marx as a guide to our troubles, whose diagnoses of capitalism’s ills helps us to navigate us towards a more prosperous life. Whether you agree with the man or not, we should all be Marxist in the sense of us being critical in challenging what we believe is right or wrong. As Marx rightfully puts in ‘The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’:
“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”