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Karl Marx statue

Karl Marx’s insights retain their clout and relevance

Originally published: The Irish Times by Patrick Smyth (May 3, 2018)   | 

His view over Brussels’s magnificent Grand Place from La Maison du Cygne was a vivid architectural representation of what he was trying to write. History as class struggle.

The tall gothic and baroque guild houses, an expression of the rise to pre-eminence of the merchant bourgeoisie, and the town hall spoke of municipal power and wealth. And surrounded by a city teeming with the poor and hungry . . .

An impoverished Karl Marx, barely 30, spent three years here from 1846.

And in the back room of what is now one of Brussels’ most chic restaurants, with friend Friedrich Engels, he laboured over their most important work, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, part-groundbreaking philosophical and historical thesis, but above all a call to action that would reverberate around the world.

Two hundred years ago next Saturday, Marx was born in the small German town of Trier, where EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will deliver a speech for the birthday unveiling of a 5.5m statue of the local boy, a gift from the People’s Republic of China.

“Nobody can deny that Karl Marx is a figure who shaped history in one way or the other,” a commission spokeswoman defensively insisted.

Not speaking about him would come close to denying history.

His intellectual legacy is everywhere. Last week with a laugh, a senior Irish diplomat described to me the “mao dun” – Chinese for “internal contradiction” – at the heart of a commission proposal. Doomed, he was suggesting, like capitalism and its contradictions, to the dustbin of history.

20th century’s woes

Neither Juncker nor my diplomat, you may be relieved to hear, are closet Marxists, but in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 , they, like many others, economists, historians and philosophers, have been willing to look again seriously at the ideas of a man at whose door most of the 20th century’s woes have been unfairly laid by conventional opinion.

And yet. No more than the bloody crusades, or the terreur and the guillotine can be said definitively to characterise Christendom or the French Republic,  Marx too can and must be rescued from his disciples’ excesses and intellectual rigidities. “If anything is certain,” he would claim to “revolutionary phrase-mongering” adherents, “it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”

Rescuing Marx is first and foremost about rescuing his thinking from the charge – a caricature – of dogmatism and rigidity. On the contrary, it is above all a methodology of thinking and analysis, not a fixed position, not a political programme, nor a set of explicit prescriptions for the world’s ills.

One that explores the dynamics of constant change in the economic, political and ideological spheres as the working-out of contradictions. In Marx’s view, these are the tensions between old ways of creating the means of survival, and their social organisation, and new, emerging forms of economic and political organisation. Irreconcilable opposites in whose synthesis the new world is created.

But for Marx, and his “historical materialism”, history itself was inherently open-ended:

All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.

“In Marx’s vision, which cannot recognise anything as absolutely final,” the late philosopher István Mészáros wrote,

There can be no place for a utopian golden age, neither ‘round the corner’ nor astronomical distances away. Such a golden age would be an end of history, and thus the end of man himself.

Triumph of capitalism

It was not Marxists who announced “the end of history” on the fall of the Soviet Union, supposedly the triumph of capitalism as the highest and unsurpassable civilisation. Such finality is absurd to them.

Marx’s analysis and insights have made much of modern sociology and shaped political and historical theory. Gender theory, race theory, and new insights into humanity’s ecological death wish, have all added to and deepened his insights into the exploitation that drives capitalism

Even right-wing economists nod at his critique of the market. The jury may still be out on whether, as he predicts, there is an inevitable tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

But, most recently, in a powerful dissection of the data on wealth concentrations and distribution over the last 250 years, French economist Thomas Piketty convincingly linked growing global inequality to the fact that the rate of capital return in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth. In other words, as Marx predicted, under capitalism the rich will get richer and the poor, poorer.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx wrote in 1845. And the view of the cobbled square from the Maison du Cygne remains. Unchanged.

Happy birthday, Karl.

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