A slightly modified version has been published in The Times of India (May 11, 2018)
He was not the global icon he became after the Bolshevik Revolution
The eulogies for Karl Marx on his bicentenary (1818-2018) and elegies for communism will be the order of the day. They are deserving. There would have been no Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)(1917-91) of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin and successors, there would have been no People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong, no Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh and Cuba of Fidel Castro without Marx and Engels’ clarion call for a revolution in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. The mid-19th century Manifesto was the mantra of revolutions in the 20th century. (At the time of writing of the manifesto, Marx was a few months short of his 30th birthday and Engels was 27. The manifesto did not have any impact on the revolutions that had erupted all over Europe that year, all of which had failed. Historian Lewis Namier had described them as the “revolution of the intellectuals”.) It was not surprising that Marx and his intellectual collaborator Friedrich Engels became demigods across the Third World.
The irony cannot be overlooked that Marx and Engels did not attain cult status in England where Marx lived in exile for 30 of his 65 years in England and spent a large part of that time in the Reading Room of the British Library poring over the reports of the factory inspectors and the Factory Acts that were enacted by the British parliament in the 1830s. (The first Factory Act 1833 prohibited the employment of children below the age of nine in factories, those between the ages of 9-13 were to work for nine hours, and those between 13 and 18 for 12 hours, and a two-hour daily compulsory schooling. The Factory Act of 1844 extended the rules that applied to children to women.)
The ideas of Marx and Engels did not have much sway in the politics of western Europe or in the United States of America, the core capitalist countries. It was politicians and theorists – yes, there was such a combination in 19th century Europe – like Louis Blanc and Auguste Blanqui in France, Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany who played a significant role in pushing forward the socialist agenda. The socialist legislation carried out by Bismarck, an example of state socialism – in the 1880s – was due to Lassalle’s influence over the conservative leader. The trade unions too emerged in the second half of the 19th century as a response to the emergence of an expanded industrial economy and the large industrial working class that was a necessary part of it. Marx and Engels were stern critics of all varieties of socialism and trade unionism.
Marx had a devout following and he seemed to have been irritated by it, and he was forced to say that he was not a Marxist. Engels was the chief among the followers of Marx. There were enough in Marx’s camp in the factional feud that took place at the First International, which was the first meeting of the International Working Men’s Association dominated by French and British trade unionists. The clash was between the followers of Joseph-Pierre Proudhon, of Auguste Blanqui, of Mikhail Bakunin and of Marx. There was a split in the First International in 1872 at its conference at The Hague. The First International was moved to New York, apparently nudged by Marx, to escape the influence of the followers of Bakunin, but it was disbanded in 1876 at its conference at Philadelphia. The anarchists held sway over the First International in Europe till 1881 when it ceased to exist.
Though Engels could be called the first commentator or exegete of Marx, it seems that it became institutionalised in the Soviet Union. The official version emerged. But there were Marxists before the Soviet era, like George Sorel in the 1890s, Paul Laforgue, Marx’s son-in-law and a co-founder of the French workers’ party, Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of Social Democratic Party in Germany, and Georgi Plekhanov of the Russian Social Democratic Party. And of course, V.I.Lenin, the Russian émigré. We have Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht of the German communist party in the immediate aftermath of the First World War who were avowed Marxists. There were also the much-reviled revisionists, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, German theoreticians who broke with Marxist orthodoxy very early.
It is after the Second World War that followers of Marx felt that the master was misinterpreted by the Soviets and tried to retrieve him. And in the 1970s it led to French theoretician Louis Althusser positing a younger, romantic Marx as opposed to a mature, scientific Marx, something that was mooted by Bernstein even when Marx was alive. Bernstein called it the immature and mature phases. There was also an attempt to re-invent Marx as a sociologist during the same period.
Despite fluctuations in the intellectual fortunes of Marx, quite a few on the Left everywhere seem to persist in the belief that his critique of capitalism is invaluable and powerful. It looks more powerful than invaluable in retrospect. The reading of the first volume of Das Kapital, even in English translation (originally written in German as was the Manifesto)), remains an interesting experience as you come across a quotation from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, where the protagonist denounces gold in a soliloquy. What is lacking in clarity in Marx is made up through passion. It seems to be the case that it is his passionate argumentation more than logical rigour that keeps his text alive. He however believed that he was dispassionately dissecting capitalism. His economics became antiquated even as he published his first volume in 1867, and his philosophy remained in the shadow of Hegel. Many of the ardent Marxists, in and outside academia, are now invoking Hegel as a means of understanding Marx better. Marx is struck in the historicist groove and scientific socialism cannot extricate him out of it.