Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
May 5, 2023, marked the 205th birth anniversary of Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883), the German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, critic of political economy, and socialist and revolutionary. Few men have shaken the world as Karl Marx did. The ideas of Marx have never been more relevant than they are today. This is reflected in the thirst for Marxist theory at the present time.
Marxism is a social, economic, and political philosophy that analyses the impact of the ruling class on the labourers, leading to the uneven distribution of wealth and privileges in society. In fact, socialism is not a taboo even in the most capitalist countries like the US. So, is Marxism relevant today, even in the 21st century? Well, the very fact that a liberal newspaper like the New York Times had published an article “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You were right”.
The article was written on April 30, 2018, by Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy. The article speaks volumes about his relevance today. After the 2008 economic crisis in the US, Europe, and the rest of the world, and the recent banking crisis in the US (2023), Marx has been brought out of the coffin. In the West, the interest in Marxism is rising fast.
WHAT IS MARXISM?
Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after the 19th-century German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. It stimulates the workers to protest the injustice. His work examines the historical effects of capitalism on labour, productivity, and economic development, and argues that a worker revolution is needed to replace capitalism with a communist system.
Marxism posits that the struggle between social classes—specifically between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the proletariat, or workers—defines economic relations in a capitalist economy and will lead inevitably to a communist revolution. Marxism is an economic and political theory that examines the flaws inherent in capitalism and seeks to identify an alternative, which he called “utopian socialism.”
Marxist theories were influential in the development of socialism, which requires shared ownership by workers of the means of production. Communism outright rejects the concept of private ownership, mandating that “the people,” in fact the government, collectively own and control the production and distribution of all goods and services.
Karl Marx proved in his popular booklet the Communist Manifesto, that the emergence of the socialist system is inevitable. In his famous work Das Capital he analysed and proved that class struggles would dismantle the capitalist system and establish a new socialist system. In his 1875 writing, Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx summarized the communist philosophy in this way: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
By contrast, socialism is based on the idea that people will be compensated based on their level of individual contribution to the economy. Socialism predates communism by several decades. Its early adherents called for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, solidarity among workers, better working conditions, and common ownership of land and manufacturing equipment.
WHAT PRECISELY IS MARX’S LASTING CONTRIBUTION?
So, what makes this 205-year-old phenomenon called Marxism so special that it is still being debated ferociously today? Well, simply put, the answer to this probably lies in Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism which explains the continuous crisis in capitalism today. In economics and the social sciences, Marx accomplished what Darwin achieved in biology. He presented a systematic and economic worldview of the historical flow of events, through dialectics and evolution.
Marx explained that previously, we had a slave society that transformed into a feudal system of kings and princes, and dukes. After the Industrial Revolution and the exponential rise in scientific discoveries, this system evolved into capitalism, which destroyed the old feudal system and created two new classes – the ruling classes, which owned the means of production, and the working classes which sold their labour for a salary.
According to Marx’s biographer Jonathan Sperber, the 19th-century thinker identified exploitation and questioned the automatic self-regulation of a capitalist economy. Marxism propagates the establishment of a classless society. The means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned by the community as a whole as against private ownership. Marxism examines the struggle between the capitalists and the working class.
Capitalism is defined as a mode of production in which business owners (the capitalists) own all of the means of production (the factory, the tools and machinery, the raw materials, the final product, and the profits earned from their sale). Workers (labour) are hired for wages and have no ownership stake and no share in the profits.
Capitalist society is made up of two classes: the bourgeoisie, or business owners, who control the means of production, and the proletariat, or workers, whose labour transforms raw commodities into goods that have market value. Marx claimed that there are two major flaws in capitalism that lead to the exploitation of workers by employers: the chaotic nature of free market competition and the extraction of surplus labour.
Ordinary labourers, who do not own the means of production, such as factories, buildings, and materials, have little power in the capitalist economic system. Workers are also readily replaceable in periods of high unemployment, further devaluing their perceived worth. To maximize profits, business owners have to get the most possible work out of their labourers while paying them the lowest possible wages.
This creates an imbalance between owners and labourers, whose work is exploited by the owners for their own gain. Since workers have little personal stake in the process of production, Marx believed they would become alienated from their work, and even from their own humanity, and turn resentful toward business owners.
Like other classical economists, Karl Marx believed in a labour theory of value (LTV) to explain relative differences in market prices. This theory stated that the value of a product can be measured objectively by the average number of hours of labour required to produce it. In other words, if a table takes twice as long to make as a chair, then the table should be considered twice as valuable. What Marx added to this theory was the conclusion that this labour value represented the exploitation of workers.
Marxian economic concept Surplus-value professed to explain the instability of the capitalist system. Adhering to David Ricardo’s labour theory of value, Karl Marx held that human labour was the source of economic value. The capitalist pays his workers less than the value their labour has added to the goods, usually only enough to maintain the worker at a subsistence level.
Of the total worth of the worker’s labour, however, this compensation, in Marxian theory, accounts for only a mere portion, equivalent to the worker’s means of subsistence. The remainder is “surplus labour,” and the value it produces is “surplus value.” To make a profit, Marx argued, the capitalist appropriates this surplus value, thereby exploiting the labourer.
Therefore, Marx’s theory concludes that the profit of capitalists is the result of the exploitation of workers because the value produced by workers is greater than the wages they are paid. It follows from this theory that capitalism is inherently and unavoidably an unjust and exploitative economic system.
Thus, Marx thought that the capitalist system contained the seeds of its own destruction. Marx predicted that capitalism would eventually destroy itself as more people become relegated to working-class status, inequality rises, and competition drives corporate profits to zero. The alienation and exploitation of the proletariat that are fundamental to capitalist relations would inevitably drive the working class to rebel against the bourgeoisie and seize control of the means of production.
In other words, ultimately, the inherent inequalities and exploitative economic relations between these two classes will lead to a revolution in which the working-class rebels against the bourgeoisie, takes control of the means of production, and abolishes capitalism.
According to Marx, this would eventually evolve into socialism, where the workers would take over control of the means of production. Finally, this would lead to communism, where a classless society would be formed. Hence, Marx presented a scientific framework based on economic relations to study history and predict the future.
RELEVANCE OF MARXISM
Marx and Engels’ ideas laid the groundwork for the theory and practice of communism, which advocates for a classless system in which all property and wealth are communally (rather than privately) owned. One way communism differs from socialism historically is that the former calls for the transfer of power to the working class through revolutionary rather than gradual means. Both communism and socialism advocate public control of the means of production, although socialism allows for the continued existence of capitalism in some parts of the economy.
Marx did not change the world by leading the life of a political activist, but by leading the life of a revolutionary philosopher and scholar. Marxism is commonly understood as an economic and social system based on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx’s ideas are, in fact, still relevant today especially Marx’s propositions about justice and equality should find application in improving the existing society.
What comes to most people’s minds when they think of Karl Marx is his impact on politics and communism, and then on social democracy. However, in real terms, his influence has been much wider. Marxist ideas have influenced feminism, economic theory, sociology and philosophy, to name but a few areas of study. His approach and method of studying society can be and have been applied to many fields.
According to Georg Müller Marx’s theory on different classes within the society can provide valuable suggestions on how these classes can interrelate to form a whole and therefore demonstrate society’s functionality as one single unit. The theory can help us consider the present in a long-term perspective through Marx’s historical sense, as well as understand the inherent dynamics of society as a whole and not only their functionality as separate units. Marxism can provide a theory of a society in accordance with the highest human ideals to a very high extent.
Karl Marx’s ideas are still alive and relevant in today’s world and can answer the complex and difficult questions faced by capitalism in the 21st century. His ideas and methods of analysis can still be used to interpret the world in order to change it for the better.
The recent growing inequality with billionaires, corporate honchos accumulating wealth, the decline of corporate tax rates, rising corporate profits, decline of real wages, a proposal to raise working hours from 8 hours to 12 hours per day in India, changing labour laws to detriment of the working class and to the benefits of business behemoths reveal why Marxism is more relevant today.
Finally, the understanding that a capitalist market economy was not an automatically self-regulating system; rather, it periodically entered periods of self-generated breakdown. Marx called these periods “crises”; today, we use a milder term, “recessions”. The most recent of these, beginning in 2007-08, and the recent banking crisis of the US warrant the older sobriquet, in view of its severity, persistence, and global impact.
WHERE MARX FAILED
However, Marx failed to study the intricacies of human behaviours and sentiments. Marx also failed to study the dark psychology of dehumanization-treating others as less than equal. Dehumanization is a mental loophole that lets us harm other people in the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities.
Dehumanization is the denial of full humanness in others along with the cruelty and suffering that accompany it. It is not that only capitalists dehumanize labours, dehumanisation exists based on caste, colour, gender, power, position, religion, income, and wealth discrimination. Human behaviour changes with the gain of wealth, power, and recognition. Many people forget their own people when accumulate wealth or power.
A person in lower stratum of society may likely to hate his own community when occupies a higher position or accumulates wealth. Human behaviours are affected by greed, emotion, and desire to excel or enjoy suzerainty too. Today we see many top people, ministers, bureaucrats, and corporates who hate the poor section of society despite coming from a poor background. Further, any ideology may take the form of violence when takes political orientation.
Whether one is pro-poor/working class or pro-rich, one may like to retain power at any cost ignoring basic philosophy. One may behave egoistically when obsession for self-aggrandisement outweighs philosophy. It means always a strong brake or checks and balances, opposition to the exploitation of the rich/powerful/ruling class/ corporates is necessary to maintain balance in society.
Both communism and socialism oppose capitalism, an economic system characterized by private ownership and a system of laws that protect the right to own or transfer private property. When Marx emerged in the scenario, there was huge exploitation of workers by capitalists. Hence, he stressed how to fight against exploitation. Basically, his philosophy is to fight for social justice and individual rights and dignity. Interpretation should change with the passage of time too. For example, time was when polygamy was encouraged; now it is punishable by law.
Capitalism is facing crises always but survives by making people more greedy, corrupt, and dishonest. When more people become greedy, they try to accumulate wealth more by hook or crook; produce and consume more. This may lead to a rise in economic activities and GDP growth but result in mammoth inequality and exhaustion of natural resources with concomitant environmental degradation and pollution.
By contrast, socialism is based on the concept of public ownership and regulation of the means of production, but individuals may still own property. Rather than rising out of a class revolution, socialist reform has taken place within existing social and political structures, whether they are democratic, technocratic, oligarchic, or totalitarian.
Socialism requires a sense of sacrifice which many do not like. Hence, it becomes difficult to sustain socialism when there are rampant consumerism and people embracing hedonism. Socialism, stressing equitable distribution of wealth and honesty, and sacrifice, cannot lead to much higher growth but can lead to an improved standard of living, qualitative life.
A rate of 2 per cent growth in the socialistic pattern of government has a more positive impact than 8 per cent growth in the capitalistic pattern of society. Socialism can ensure sustainable development and reduce the detrimental impact of climate change. But capitalism will further exacerbate and aggravate. Hence Marx’s ideas are more relevant today.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reachedthrough e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any wayrepresent the views of Sambad English.