Special Article

‘The Return of Karl Marx’

Randhir Singh

(Excerpts from the talk delivered at the Foundation for Social Responsibility as part of the lecture series on Creeds for the New Millennium)

Way back in the 17th century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had pointed to the rulers’ hostility to truth -- even geometrical axioms -- if it ran counter to their interests. In his characteristically pungent manner, he had written: ‘For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle, should be equal to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able’. (That is how the burning and banning of books - and suppression of truth - has been such an important part of our civilisational progress and seems to have got a new lease of life under the present dispensation in our country). Now, Marx’s truth has obviously been ‘a thing contrary to the interest of men that have dominion’ in our society. Therefore, he has never lacked for enemies who have been busy ‘refuting’, misrepresenting and vulgarising him over the last hundred years and more. But Marx has suffered equally, perhaps more, at the hands of friends - they have brought much grist to mills of the enemies through their dogmatism, scientism, economism and much else besides. In his moving short poem Karl Heinrich Marx, the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has written:

I see you betrayed

by your disciples

only your enemies

remained what they were.

Between enemies and friends a whole range of Marx’s ideas - on philosophy and history, economics and politics, ethics and culture - have come to be distorted and vulgarised. Two of the easiest examples that immediately come to mind are what Marx is supposed to have said regarding religion and ‘opium’ or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. ‘If people could only read’, Marx used to say. Maurice Dobb, the eminent Marxist economist who was also a good Marxist, had once suggested that it is much easier to say what Marxism is not than to state what it is. The collapse of Soviet Union, of what they had built there in the name of Marxism, has made the situation worse confounded, adding to the already formidable difficulties of speaking on the subject of Marxism.

I am not here going to chase any controversies or attempt any kind of comprehensive treatment of Marxism as I understand it. Constraints of time alone make that impossible. Mine will be a modest response to the theme of this series and I will try to make it relevant to what is happening around us in the world at large and in our own country. I will advance a few basic proportions but will not be able to either offer explanations, or make qualifications which is always necessary in social scientific thinking to secure better validity for one’s propositions. I will raise questions more than providing answers. The aim is to share with you a general sense of what Marx was after and the hope is that at least some among the younger people present here learn to ask the right kind of questions of the reality around them, for in the final analysis this is indeed what Marxism of Marx is about.

I am sure many of you are intrigued by the title 1 have given to my talk – ‘The Return of Karl Marx’. Let me assure you that there is more to it than ‘good old dogmatism’ or ‘at best, misplaced optimism’ as even some ‘friends’, now hopeless about me, have suspected. Towards the end of eighties, as the communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe, the New Yorker, ‘an upmarket magazine’ in the United States, celebrated the occasion with an article by Robert Heilbroner entitled ‘Triumph of Capitalism’, whose argument reverberated worldwide, setting off a new round of hosannas for capitalism and renewed pronouncements of ‘the death of Marxism’. The argument was seriously flawed but that is not my concern at the moment. The immediately important fact is that less than a decade later, towards the end of 1997, in a bout of futurology, bringing together a series of articles around the theme ‘what next?’, the same New Yorker went looking for the ‘next most influential thinker’, and the article, written by an Englishman Davies who is no Marxist, now or ever before, was entitled, ‘The Return of Karl Marx’! (Davis felt persuaded to write the article when a friend, having reached the highest positions in the US corporate world told him that it was just as Marx had it). The article had concluded: ‘His (Marx’s) books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures’. Davies is right. I will only underline that none has studied and analysed capitalism better than Marx and that he has indeed been prophetic in his analysis of capitalism. Hence his continuing relevance for our time and the need for us to turn or return to Marx for a viable creed for the new millennium.

Marx is relevant because we are living, nationally and globally, in a world of capitalism. Of course, capitalism today is not as Marx saw and studied it in the 19th century. It has undergone changes, important changes, since then, and it is necessary to recognise them for understanding, and struggling against, contemporary capitalism. But as Raymond Williams once warned, in taking note of what has changed in capitalism, we must not make the mistake of underestimating everything that has not changed. And this ‘everything’, above all, includes the structural logic of capitalism, the lawlike tendencies of its capitalaccumulative process which, as Marx explicated, have meant uneven and unequal development within and across countries. Within countries, even when somewhat curbed in the advanced centres of capitalism - which curbing however remains reversible as the current dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ in the West shows -- they have had the consequence of generating wealth and affluence at one end and poverty and deprivation at the other. Worldwide, the inexorable consequence has been a gap between the centre and the periphery of global capitalism, an everwidening gap between wealth and poverty at the two poles. This exploitative structural logic of capitalism is as much at work today as it was when Marx first studied and analysed capitalism. In fact, it is all the more at work now as, with globalisation, the world is more capitalist today than it has been for a long time -- a reality which bourgeois ideology seeks to obscure through its mythmaking over ‘globalisation’.

In tandem with the somewhat waning ‘Post’ ‘Globalisation’ is the fashionable buzzword these days. It is as if something is happening which has never happened before. As if a whole new epoch of benevolence and prosperity for all has opened in human history, an epoch in which things like capitalism, imperialism, exploitation, and therefore socialism, are all a matter of the past. And there is supposed to be no alternative to what is happening as ‘globalisation’. But all this is only ideological mystification, so much ‘globaloney’ as it has been called. Capitalism has been from the very beginning a globalising system. Adam Smith knew it and you will find its sharpest, and literally prophetic, expression in the Communist Manifesto, where Marx wrote of how ‘the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe’, how it ‘must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’, how it has ‘established the world market’ and ‘though its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country’, how it ‘batters down all Chinese walls’ and ‘compels all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves’, and so on. ‘Globalisation’, thus, is nothing new, no new epoch in the history of humankind. It is only another phase in the process of capitalist expansion, of course with its own more or less important specificities.

The most important specificity to be noticed about the current phase of globalisation is its radical departure from the way global capitalism existed during the previous period of postwar boom, the ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Capitalism of this period was marked by Keynesian strategies of moderate macroeconomic regulations and the accompanying limits on capital’s unending thirst for more profits, collectively known as the ‘welfare state’, which, incidentally, saved capitalism from its own self-destructive tendencies as manifested, for example, in the Great Depression - and also helped it acquire a muchneeded ‘human face’, against the external threat of socialism. The onset of a structural crisis of capitalism, which gives every sign of being irreversible, has changed all that. 1970s saw the world economy going into a downturn that has worsened through every recession since; the gap between business cycles is getting smaller, barely does recovery begin, growth falters. ‘Globalisation’, with its neoliberalism, is essentially a response to this structural crisis of capitalism and signifies a return, as it were, from the aberration that was the postwar ‘golden age’, to a period of normal, ‘freemarket’ capitalism. For capital to remain, competitive’ in the global market, Keynesian state interventions in the economy have to go. Nor can capitalism now afford to wear a ‘human face’; with the threat of socialism having receded, perhaps, it also does not need to wear it any more. State must revert to its traditional way of serving capitalism, that is, it must now act as the main agent of globalisation. And this is indeed how state is now acting. It is ironic that at a time when the world is behaving, so to speak, in a most Marxian manner, all sorts of wise men have taken to proclaiming the obsolescence of Marxism. Far from being obsolete, Marxism has become all the more relevant today for those in search of a viable creed for our times.

Strictly speaking, Marxism is not a creed, ‘a system of beliefs’, as the term is conventionally understood or defined. Though, friends and enemies have tended to treat it like one, Marxists themselves have ever so often behaved like ‘believers’ and it was virtually reduced to a statereligion in the erstwhile Soviet Union. No creedmaker or builder of a philosophical system, Marx was, by vocation, a revolutionary as Engels emphasised in his famous graveside speech on the death of Marx. Philosopher, economist, historian, and much else, Marx was indeed ‘the man of science’, said Engles. He had however, immediately added: ‘But this was not even half the man... For Marx was before all else a revolutionist’. This was a choice Marx had made quite early in his life. In an essay Marx wrote for his schoolleaving examination in 1835, ‘A Young Man’s Reflections on the Choice of a Career’, he stated that working ‘only for himself’ one ‘can become a famous scholar, a great sage, an excellent imaginative writer (Dichter), but never a perfected, a truly great man’. Instead Marx himself opted for a life ‘that is most consonant with our dignity, one that is based on ideas of whose truth we are wholly convinced, one that offers us largest scope in working for humanity’. This option which soon matured into a clearly defined revolutionary commitment, stayed with Marx throughout his life. Early in his youth, asserting that ‘man is the highest being for man’, he spoke up for ‘the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a humiliated, enslaved, despised and rejected being’; later, about the time he finished writing Capital, to complete which he had sacrificed, as he said, his ‘health, happiness and family’, Marx wrote to a friend’: ‘I laugh at the socalled “practical” men with their wisdom. If one chose to be an ox, one could turn one’s back on the sufferings of mankind and look after one’s own skin’. It is this revolutionary commitment, the moral choice he had made to stand up for ‘mankind’ that underlay Marx’s theoretical work, and the outcome was no creed for the faithful to believe in and uphold or a closed system of philosophy already in possession of ‘the truth’, as the enemies have often caricatured it.

In a statement remarkable for his age, the Darwinian age drunk on its achievements of science, or ‘reason’ as they also called it, and breaking sharply with the received philosophical tradition, from Plato to Hegel - which, in Marx’s words, again and again sought ‘to settle all problems for all time’ and regularly demanded ‘Here is the truth! Here you must kneel’ - Marx (together with Engels) proclaimed: ‘we are but little beyond the beginning of human history, and the generations which will put us right are likely to be far more numerous than those whose knowledge we - often enough with a considerable degree of contempt - are in a position to correct…the stage of knowledge which we have now reached is as little final as all that have preceded it’. ‘De Omnibus Dubitandum’ (‘Doubt Everything’) was Marx’s favourite methodological principle and it is significant that so many of his writings, including Capital, had the word ‘critique’ in their titles. And it is precisely this critical spirit underlying Marxism of Karl Marx that was later expressed in Engels’ adjuration to followers to ‘not pick quotations from Marx or from him as if from sacred texts, but think as Marx would have thought in their place’. He had insisted that ‘it was only in that sense that the word Marxist had any raison d’etre’. That is how what Marx has left behind is no creed, no ‘system of beliefs’ for the faithfuls to uphold and proclaim, but, most importantly, a method of thinking, a critique of capitalism, the unjust and inhuman society he wanted overthrown, and the vision of a just and humane society beyond capitalism born of this critique - a society which capitalism has not and because of its structural logic, cannot achieve. It is this legacy of Marx which is today central to the making of a viable ‘creed’ -- if we must use the word - for the new millennium.

Not a creed, Marx did have a vision - ‘traum’ as he called it of a good society for our times. Marx recognised ‘free conscious activity’ as ‘man’s species being’ and had a rare awareness of the range of possibilities inhering in human nature which we cannot even imagine today because of the way capitalism has blighted our essential humanity and distorted our vision. He looked forward, beyond capitalism, to a society in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’, where all are fulfilled by equality and freedom, and a truly rich human life. But Marx’s vision was not the usual compendium of high ideals, a string of ‘oughts’ divorced from ‘is’, making demands upon the individual to live up to abstracted values, and add up to constitute a good society. Marx rejected idealist utopianism, the making of the blue prints of an ideal society. He refused, as he said, to ‘compose music of the future’. Unlike most other visions, Marx’s vision was grounded in the objective reality, in the conditions then coming into existence which were for the first time making it possible for humankind to move beyond the inevitably exploitationbased, scarcityridden class civilisations of the past, to move beyond its ‘prehistory’, as Marx called it, to history proper of humankind. Marx saw these conditions as created by capitalism. In his famous tribute to capitalism’s extraordinary productive achievements in the Communist Manifesto, he wrote: ‘What earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?’ Marx saw such development of ‘productive forces’, creation of a material basis for socialist/communist society of the future as the historical task of capitalism. But Marx also saw capitalism as denying, or making impossible, the realisation of new possibilities now opening up for humankind. In other words, Marx’s vision of a good society beyond capitalism was born of his critique of capitalism.

In the course of this critique, even as Marx noticed, along with the productive achievements of capitalism, its negative material consequences as a classexploitative system, Marx draw attention to the moral and cultural ravage capitalism wreaks upon humankind. He noted that man, stripped of his ‘human essence’ when he first fell into the class of the exploited, faces ‘the destruction of all humanity’ in him under capitalism. The process of capitalist exploitation, with its attendant ‘greed and the war between the greedy - competition’, holds human beings, the capitalists as well as the workers, in its compulsive grip and puts them at the mercy of ‘the blind forces of the market’. It transforms free creative selfactivity of man into alienated labour and reduces man himself into ‘a commodity’. It estranges man from nature, from himself, his own active functioning’. It alienates ‘man from man’. Capitalism tears up ‘all genuine bonds between men’, and dissolves ‘the world of men into a world of atomised individuals, hostile to each other’. It leaves ‘no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest, than callous “cash payment and resolves ‘personal wealth into exchange value’. Every aspect of human life is commodified and the very things which were once ‘communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought - virtue. love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. ’ now become marketable and pass ‘into commerce’. The divine power of money’ overturns and confounds ‘all human and natural qualities’ in the market place...

In pointing out the alienating, depersonalising and dehumanising consequences of capitalism, Marx particularly focussed attention on the fact that for all the glorious human senses, whose concrete and active exercise alone constitutes the true content of genuinely rich human life, capitalism substitutes a single historically transient abstract sense, the sense for property, which plays havoc with human personality and plunges man into what has been welldescribed as ‘the terrible inner sickness of an acquisitive society’. As Marx put it: ‘In place of all these physical and mental senses there has come the, sheer estrangement of all these senses - the sense of having. The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order that he might yield his inner wealth to the outer world.’ For Marx the socalled rich man of capitalism was ‘ever poorer as a man’, robbed of real life and crippled in his inner being. Marx wrote, ‘the more you have, the less you are’, and insisted that ‘the transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes’. He spoke of communism, ‘the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and recovery’, ‘as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social i.e., human) being - a return become conscious, and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development’. Marx adds: ‘What is to be avoided above all is the reestablishing of “society” as an abstraction visavis the individual. The individual is the social being. His life ... is therefore an expression and cofirmation of social life’.

Marx made a distinction between the ‘realm of necessity’ and the ‘realm of freedom’. He noted the inescapable fact that in all societies, material production is necessary to maintain life. ‘Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production’. Marx saw this, the realm of material production, as the ‘realm of necessity’. The choice here is between the capitalist and the socialist ways of carrying out material production, that is, between producing according to the capitalist criteria, ‘the pseudomoral principles’, as Keynes once put it, ‘which have hagridden us for 200 years (and) by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues’, or, as Marx advocated, producing according to socialist principles, that is, as ‘associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature...with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature’. For Marx, however, ‘it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity’. The ‘realm of freedom’ lies beyond it, it ‘begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus, in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material of production’. Marx characterised it as ‘that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with the realm of necessity as it basis’. That is how socialism or communism for Marx has a material basis, but it is not material fulfillment. What true human fulfillment, ‘the realm of freedom’ and its ‘blossoming forth’, mean has been well suggested by the Marxist philosopher, Ladislav Stoll. Pointing out that ‘in place of many-sided, active, concrete appropriation of life and the world, through which the individual says not only “I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I touch” but also “I work, I study, I love, I admire, I struggle for a happier tomorrow”- in place of all this wealth of emotion, capitalism makes one single emotion supreme: “I have”, Stoll has written: ‘The truly human way of appropriating the world’s riches is that by which man really overcomes the world, in other words, with all his senses, concretely. And here it is not a question only of five physical senses, for unlike the animals man has a whole series of glorious human senses, not only the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, but also a sense for music, a sense for poetry, a sense for the plastic arts, a sense for science, a sense for mathematics, a sense for history, crystalography, etc., etc. It is only when a man begins to satisfy the needs of these glorious human senses, which one and all are the product of historical development, that he can appropriate to himself all the beauties of the world and become genuinely rich’.

Such was Marx’ vision of our future - and it was no idealist utopia. It was firmly grounded in the possibilities then existing and maturing in the womb of society -- possibilities which now stand enhanced many times over by the scientifictechnological revolutions of recent times. Marx had hoped for the realisation of his vision in countries where capitalism had created the necessary material basis for it, that is, in the industrially advanced countries. But history played a trick on Marx’s hope. Of the European revolutions at the end of the first world warwhich Marx had anticipatedonly the revolution in Russia survived. Instead of socialism being built on a base provided by the economic, political and cultural achievements of capitalism, a single backward country was called upon to build it, and build it in the midst of a most hostile global domination of capitalism. Lenin recognised the predicament and, possibly, had the potential to make a creative Marxist response to this entirely unanticipated situation, a response which, to put it in Marxist terms, involved simultaneous development of productive forces and building up of socialist relations of production as the basis of a new society. Lenin saw this as a struggle where ‘defeat’ was a distinct possibility, and wrote: ‘struggle and struggle alone, decides, how far we shall advance’. But the struggle, especially after Lenin’s early departure, was not adequate enough. Logic of backwardness, compulsions of sheer survival, scientistic Marxism and economism in theory (‘theory of productive forces’), the flaws in the character of men who led -- all taking their toll, what got built was a grievously deformed socialism. And now, seventy odd years later, a finally defeated Russia has been sucked back into global capitalism. What has happened was not inevitable, but it has happened, leaving the world more capitalist than ever before. But, for this very reason, as I have argued earlier, also making Marxism more relevant than ever before.

Since India is a part of this capitalist world and, with our rulers opting for ‘globalisation’, is becoming still more a part of it, this relevance does not exclude India. Therefore, before I conclude, a quick reference to our own situation today will not be out of place.

It is not much remembered these days that we were very much a globalised country not so long ago. Before 1947, we were part of a global system, wellintegrated into a world market economy. We were globalised, but we did not like it. Our globalisation then also had a name, imperialism, and we struggled against it, precisely because it meant - by virtue of its structural logic - the accumulation of wealth in England and poverty in India. Like other Third World countries we wanted to get out of this globalisation to be able to opt for an independent, selfreliant development in the interests of our common people. Herein lay the essential meaning of our long struggle for freedom. It is significant of our rulers today that those in power, when not in opposition to this struggle had little to do with it, and those now in opposition, claiming to be successors of Gandhi and Nehru, have long forgotten what this struggle was about.

Freedom won - a transfer of power from foreign to Indian hands which however left the old socioeconomic and statebureaucratic structures largely intact - our postcolonial rulers set up a ‘national project’ of selfreliant economic development to supplement the recently won political freedom with the more important economic freedom for the Indian people. But it only led to the development of a governmentsupported Indiaspecific capitalism and, passing through crises and producing tragedies for the people midsixties onward, finally collapsed in 1991. In such matters, the subjective concerns of leaders or rulers matter - but only marginally. More decisive are the necessities of the objective material conditions. In the absence of revolutionary politics, which changes the economicstructural basis of society, it is the logic of this basis that prevails. That is how for all Gandhi’s love and concern for the Indian people, which to him meant, above all, the impoverished peasantry of India - ‘the semistarved masses...slowly sinking to lifelessness’, as he put it - it is not Gandhi’s peasant but, metaphorically speaking, a Birla who inherited India in 1947; and for all his awareness of the ‘terrible costs of not changing the existing order’, Nehru’s ‘socialistic pattern of society’ ended up as Indiaspecific capitalism. Hence also the ultimate collapse of the ‘national project’ of selfreliant economic growth in the interests of the Indian people.

The ‘national project’ having finally collapsed, the ruling classes of India, through their major political formations, have opted for ‘globalisation’ as their strategic option for the future. Having benefitted from the governmentsupported capitalist development of the past they now see their interests as lying with ‘freernarket’based global capitalism. But the historical experience in India, and elsewhere in the Third World, makes it abundantly clear that the Indian people will find no answers to their problems in capitalism, national - as built under Nehru in the name of ‘socialistic pattern’, or now promised by the RSS in the name of ‘swadeshi’ -- or globalised, that the ruling elite has opted for. There is much noise over ‘growth rates’ and ‘trickle downs’. ‘Trickle down’ occurs but rarely and at best remains as Galbraith once described it: feeding oats to horses so that some of it passes down to the road for the sparrows! As for ‘growth rates’ this is how a President of Brazil once reported about his country in Washington: ‘the economy is doing fine, the people are not’. Therefore, the Indian economy may do ‘fine’ (with its growth rates, etc.) but the people will not. For such indeed is the structural logic of capitalism. The logic of ‘the market’ also makes for ‘the secession of the successful’, to borrow a phrase from the Harvard economist Robert Reich. ‘The successful’ of India’s capitalistmarket society seem to have already decided to secede from their ‘unsuccesful’ fellow countrymen, the common Indian people. This is not a matter only of their economic policies. The secession’ is very much visible in their vulgar display of wealth and vulgarised values and lifestyles, in the ‘culture’ splashed across television screens and the coloured supplements of ‘national’ newspapers, and in the pitiful protests of the ‘cultural nationalists’, cabinet ministers downwards, who want a marketeconomy but not the market morality and culture that necessarily come along with it.

As against the ruling class option of globalisation, the Indian people today are confronted with the task of defining and struggling for an alternative option of their own. This, however, is not a subject I can pursue here. Immediately I will only say that Marxism can help our people in understanding what has been and is happening to our country and thus also in defining and struggling for an option of their own. It is certainly time that leaders on the left and in the peoples’ movements begin to think and act as Marx would have thought and acted in their place.

Let me conclude with a briefest of brief final statement. Marx was optimistic about the future of socialism. But he was no determinist. There are no inevitabilities or guarantees of victory in Marx. Even as he insisted in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, Marx had immediately added that this struggle ‘each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’. He had hailed the productive achievements of capitalism. But he had also pointed out both the damage capitalism regularly inflicts upon man and nature and its long term destructive potential which Rosa Luxemburg well summed up in her prophetic poser: ‘Socialism or Barbarism?’. Capitalism living beyond its historical time indeed spells a future of barbarism for humankind. It could be a nuclear holocaust that its politics has threatened for half a century or the almost certain ecological disaster which - the noise over socalled ‘sustainable development’ notwithstanding - capitalism’s accumulative logic now portends. Barbarism of sorts is in fact already creeping upon us, in India and worldwide, if only we are willing to see. As Engels put it, ‘history is about the most cruel of all goddesses’. History has been cruel, so far at least, to Marx, to Lenin and Mao, as also to Gandhi and Nehru and many others besides. It can well be cruel to all of us. But then, as Marxism has it, in human affairs nothing is inevitable till it happens. We can fight back and reject the future the masters are making for us. In the final analysis it is how we struggle and fight back that will decide our future. We can still make the new millennium our millennium.

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