Friday, 15 June 2018

Karl Marx: 200 Years On

Karl Marx would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year, and a recent article in the Financial Times has caused this author to muse ‘What would Marx think of today’s society?’ In this very brief post, we look at this article and discuss just what Marx may have thought of how society has developed, and whether the common perceptions of Marx even do the great philosopher justice in today’s consciousness.

This post is not meant to be a philosophical essay (far from it), nor is it meant to be some political statement. It is a simply a brief musing after reading a very interesting article here in the Financial Times. It is acknowledged that the FT is a subscription service, so whilst excerpts will not be repeated here, the general essence of the article will provide us with enough to look at the answer the question posed above (one cannot answer it, of course). The article is concerned with a project in Berlin set up to create a complete collection of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ work, which when complete will span over a staggering 110 volumes of work. Such a staggering body of work will include letters and excerpts (which will be published in a digital format only), and the project’s leaders predict that it will be complete in 15 years’ time. The appropriately termed ‘Mega’ collection has had, as the article explains, a remarkable history in that others who have attempted such a feat have come in for political and, sometimes, actual execution. Gerald Hubmann, who is leading the project, is keen to project the ‘real’ image of Marx and Engels, an image he suggests should be characterised as one of academic and scientific debate rather than political discourse. Hubmann argues that earlier attempts to document the scholars’ work have constructed an image of the two as political animals attempting to meet political ends, but he suggests it is more the case that ‘Marx saw himself as a researcher and a scientist’. To supplement this point, Hubmann suggests that if Marx was a the political ideologue he has been painted to have been, then he would have completed the famous Das Kapital – that he did not proves, argues Hubmann, that he was an academic at heart and that he would have acknowledged that he did not finish this incredible work because, simply put, he could not… the research was not completed enough to allow him to do so. There is sense in this argument because, as Hubmann argues, if he was an ideologue, he would have completed the work and disseminated it to meet a certain goal.

It is likely the case that Das Kapital is one of Marx’s most famous works, perhaps behind the The Communist Manifesto, but that he did not conclude the work and others have done in his name is problematic. Hubmann discusses how this important element to Marx’s career and life, which as a scenario is replicated in another famous work – The German Ideology – has caused great consternation amongst followers of the Marxist ideal, with Hubmann noting how the Chinese Communist Party were displeased with the release of a new version of The German Ideology that proclaimed that ‘social existence determines consciousness’. The Chinese Communist Party apparently were unhappy as this notion affects one of the ‘pillars’ of Marxism.

Yet, the collected works bring forward new discussions regarding the work of these two scholars. Interestingly, Hubmann notes how even the remarkable level of output from the two is something of interest, mostly because they used to write side-by-side on occasion, page-by-page, so it is difficult to determine what ‘order’ the scholars wanted their narrative to be interpreted by the reader (as endeavours such as Hubmann’s piece them together after the event). However, it is noted at the end of the article that such endeavours are in-keeping with the times, as since the Financial Crisis there has been a marked increase on the work of the scholars from around the world. What then would they make of today’s world, particularly in this post-Crisis era?

It is, of course, an academic endeavour to ask such a question. The obvious response would be that Marx may feel vindicated in his approach because capitalism continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, enveloping all in its path just as he predicted in The Communist Manifesto (in fact, one need only read a few pages from the beginning to find such prophetic proclamations). However, rather than ask if he would feel vindicated, there may be other questions that would be better to ask. One of those may be to ask his thoughts on the scale of capitalism, as the capitalism he experienced has since morphed into something completely different. Now capitalism reaches into life (particularly first-world life) in such an intrusive manner – via the incorporation of modern technology in modern life – one wonders whether he could even comprehend that such an expansion was possible of such a system. He was, of course, effusive in his argument that capitalism is an organism that ‘spreads’, but its spread is so remarkable one wonders if he would even recognise this system as capitalism, or perhaps something else? There are of course a number of aspects of current life that he would realise, with aspects such as wealth-extraction, severe divisions within society (on many aspects, not just financial), and the presence of substantial globalisation (despite the best efforts of a certain political leaders) being clear examples of what he warned against. Yet, on that basis, one wonders whether he would change his views in light of what he would see today. This author studied Marxism during his first degree, and it was always apparent that certain elements of nature were, for want of a better term, overlooked. Perhaps ‘overlooked’ is too strong a term because Marx did acknowledge such elements a number of occasions, but his suggestion that the world would/should go back to a developed form of ‘early communism’ would be something to debate with him today. For example, what would his thoughts be on an argument that suggests with the ever-increasing human population, the inherent iniquities of human beings would be a natural prevention to the realisation of his idea? That is a common question that is asked of Marxism – how does this model actually apply to human beings – but the added element of an increased population may add a different dimension to this imagined conversation with the great philosopher. Perhaps the model only works when populations are at a certain size like that experienced by early humans? Perhaps that is not true, and that it is the presence of the ideal of capitalism as a counter-measure which is the foundation of any prevention. This author suggests that Marx would be tremendously staggered by what he would see today, but similarly not in the least surprised.

Marx has a permanent place in human history for his work, and rightly so. It is right that he has this place not because of one’s views, but because of the philosophical endeavour of the man and his work. But, one element stands out above all others when we consider his works on capitalism, and that is the concept of its ‘spreading’, or better still ‘contagion’. Despite what we may see on the news channels and on our phones whilst browsing Twitter feeds that suggest to us that globalisation is in recession, and that nationalism and individualism are marking irreversible marches to domination, it is not true. A system as complex and strong as capitalism does not simply die away as many have suggested in the past and continue to do so. It is, by its very nature, parasitic in composition – as the world grows, so does it. That last comment was not a comment on the worth of capitalism, but only on its composition, and in this imagined conversation with Marx one feels that it would be this element that would be most intriguing to him. On the 5th of May he would have celebrated his 200th Birthday, and now 135 years since his passing the composition of the system of capitalism has morphed into something much greater, something much more advanced – perhaps he would not even recognise it? If that was the case, one wonders what the philosophical implications of that are for us who inhabit the current system.

Keywords – Karl Marx, Politics, financial crisis, capitalism, @finregmatters

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