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Karl Marx for Today

On this very day, 130 years ago, Karl Marx died in his house in Chalk Farm Road, London.

Shortly after the death of Jenny Marx, his wife, in late 1881, Marx developed a catarrh, making him very ill for at least the final 15 months of his life. What eventually came to kill the old philosopher was bronchitis and pleurisy. He would then be buried in Highgate Cemetery three days later, with only a handful of friends gathering at his funeral.

But Marx enjoyed posthumous life as one of the most controversial theorists and political thinkers the world has ever seen – his political and economic tracts being some of the most talked about, abused, and often misunderstood works that have ever entered public dialogue.

The Labour Party, for example, has had a very fractious relationship with Marx, the extent of which is too large to discuss at any length here.

But while many will remember the words of one time General Secretary of the Labour Party, Mr Morgan Phillips (not Keir Hardie), “the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism”, wiser voices still have remembered why Marx is still relevant to Labour politics.

John Maclean, the Scottish revolutionary and educationalist, once put it in a letter in 1909:

The method of Marx, in testing the Labour Party and its leaders, is to examine whether they are constantly fighting in the interest of the wage-earning class. We marxists are in favour of the Labour Party because it is working-class; but we oppose the conduct of the MPs because it is reactionary and tends to lead the masses to Liberal petty patchwork rather than to the class struggle ending in the revolution of property- ownership which must inaugurate socialism.

I dare say the Splitter Trots in our company might write this off as “movementist”, but their alternative doesn’t seem to be working out too well anyway.

But Marx matters, for everyone in general, but for the Labour Party specifically, because what he taught the world and its dissidents is that the productive class of people, those earning a wage (when the boss class allows them this privilege), deserve their just desserts – not only do we all rely on them as we do each other, but the wage-earning class holds the world in its hands.

The world’s goods are not the sum of its management, but its production – and to see the owners of the means of that production rewarded over and above the worker, and indeed over and above what they deserve, is a farce, nay, tragedy.

Dialectical materialism, the beef of Marxism, as a philosophy acknowledges that history is played out, not through consciousness, but the physical activity of man. Historical materialism, the methodological approach Marxism, clarifies that the physical activity of man, separated from the abstract world of ideas, solidifies developments and changes in human history.

However, arguably the most important element of Marxism, and Karl Marx’ work, is the dialectic as a view of economic structure and change. For Marx each economic order (feudalism, capitalism, socialism etc) grows and advances to the very reaches of its overall life span, before the contradictions inherent to it expand to such a degree that a new economic order must necessarily take root.

But why is this so important? Namely because through it we can understand the economic order in which we live. For capitalism, the order which we find ourselves enduring today, has somewhat reached the end of its tether. What perhaps Marx didn’t account for is the capacity for economic systems to flog a dead horse.

Furthermore, the dead horse of capitalism, represented by global economic recession, has not successfully been matched head on by the triumphant Abaco Barb of socialism. The latter is losing its chance – a point not missed by Francis Fukuyama in 1989.

Indeed what the future holds for us is not a front between capitalism and socialism, but capitalism of various stripes. In one corner there is neo-liberal capitalism of the Western world, and in the other is the authoritarian capitalism of the Asian world – or, to utilise Marx further, capitalism with Asian values.

Trusted Marxist Slavoj Zizek recently said:

Something genuinely new is emerging today … A capitalism which, we can see now, is doing better in the crisis than the west. A capitalism that is more dynamic and efficient than our Western, liberal capitalism, but precisely as such functions perfectly with an authoritarian state. My pessimism is that this is the future.

In sum Marx has his uses. While the far left in Britain break up and split down the middle many times over, while talking to themselves, their desired project becomes more and more empty. For whatever the cynics say, unity is needed on the question of movements and is needed now.

However Marx’ teleology (in a nutshell: capitalism will fall, socialism will rise) is of little use to us, but the dialectic, which Marx was key to reinterpreting from Hegel, is of immense use to see what kind of capitalism takes shape as the world grows tremendously different, where values will collide (not worlds) and how we can come to dismantle its tyranny.

One Comment

  1. Syzygy says:

    And the scene is being set for that collision.

    The US-EU FTA will create a trading bloc which will account for about half the world’s economic output and nearly a third of world trade .. operating under a corporate tribunal which will have the power to change domestic legislation. Put this together with all the other, secret bi-lateral FTAs and the Trans-pacific (TPP) one being negotiated by Obama, and the world is carved up between China and satellites and the US and satellites.

    ‘It is significant that the libertarian US think-tank, Cato asks the question whether some of the concepts contained in the draft EU-US FTA are appropriate for a binding international agreement on free trade ‘or do they turn trade agreements into a kind of global constitution?’’

    The Tories are the vehicle but the real architects are those behind the WTO and the Washington Consensus .. a last gasp determined to completely squash the ‘dangerous’ rejection of ongoing liberalisation and Western capitalism.

    Zizek’s pessimism seems entirely justified. There is also the frightening rise of the right in populist anarcho-capitalist movements exemplified by the Beppe Grillo phenomenon in Italy.

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