Karl Marx was born just over 200 years ago, on 5 May 1818, in Trier in Germany. Within the space of his life – he died aged 64 in 1883 – he had become one of the most important and influential thinkers the world has ever known because of his writings on philosophy, economics, political science or history. It was for the power of what he wrote and how he expressed this that he was employed as a writer by the New York Daily Tribune for many years.
The importance and influence of his ideas remain strong. Every time there is a crisis for the capitalist system which stems from its economic workings, the most unusual of commentators come forth to say that the insights of the long-dead Marx still have relevance and force today. They say his ideas can help us understand what is going on
when so many of the conventional and establishment-supporting analysts are left dumbstruck.
These commentators include thinkers of the capitalist class writing for publications such as the Economist and Financial Times. They focus on his analysis of the inherently unstable nature of the capitalist economic system, with its propensity to ‘boom and bust’ which is exacerbated by tendencies towards concentration of ownership and centralisation of (economic) power.
These same crises for capitalism also lead to periodic spikes in the sales of his writings like the Communist Manifesto and the many volumes of Das Kapital. On youtube, the lectures of ageing American academic, David Harvey, on using the ideas of Marx to explain the calamities of the modern world, have transcended the generations and been watched by millions.
Marx did not develop all his ideas, theories and insights afresh. He drew upon those of many others like Scottish economist, Adam Smith, and German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Out of these, he developed overarching theories on the creation of profit as surplus value, understanding why labour is the source of value, the genesis of alienation and the unceasing struggle between different social classes in society. He developed what has been called a materialist conception of history, where economics – matters of profit and loss – in the last instance are the most important drivers under capitalism.
The only rider to that, he insisted, was that the social class that creates the wealth, namely, labour, has a vested interest in ending its own enslavement and exploitation. The rest of his life’s work was dedicated to directing his energies to act upon the philosophical and political programme that sprang from these ideas. Most obvious amongst them were supporting unions, striking workers and developing an international organisation of socialist parties. Marx believed that the class of labour, when acting collectively, also had the potential power to end its own enslavement and exploitation by creating a new, classless society of free and liberated human beings. READ MORE: Brian Monteith: Why we should not be glorifying the evils of Karl Marx
The irony for Marx on the occasion of his 200th birthday is that while his ideas still hold widespread currency, his followers are divided into two quite different and, often, opposing camps.
The first camp includes governments and states, most obviously led by the People’s Republic of China. The leaders of the Communist Party of China claim to take their political direction from Marx.
For this reason, they funded the building of a statue of Marx in Trier that was unveiled last Saturday.
But Marx would be turning his Highgate cemetery grave to know this. While the overall wealth of China and the living standards of its population have risen massively since 1949 when Mao took power, society in China is every bit as class ridden and unequal as the 19th century England that Marx lived in. Wealth and power are held by a tiny elite associated with the Communist Party leadership and unfettered capitalism has made a spectacular return to China in recent years.
It is for this reason that towards the end of his life, as he reflected on the bastardisation of his ideas, Marx prophetically exclaimed: “If they are Marxists, then I am not a Marxist.”
Meantime, the forces of revolutionary socialism and communism in the second camp, whether in Scotland, Britain or further afield, are but pitiful shadows of their former themselves. The likes of Jimmy Reid and Tommy Sheridan in Scotland are now just figures from history and their bands of followers are very much on the margins of politics. Once-mighty communist parties in France, Italy and Spain are dying out (often literally). A new radical left, influenced by Marxist ideas and epitomised by the likes of Syriza in Greece or Die Linke in Germany, has either reneged on its Marxist beliefs or fallen by the wayside.
But last Saturday, John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, addressed a meeting on Marx’s 200th birthday to talk positively about Marxism as a force for change today. This represents the one fillip to the influence of Marxist ideas - in Britain at any rate. Corbyn along with McDonnell, Momentum and now Richard Leonard have helped create a political culture within Labour where Marxist ideas can be debated and discussed in a way that has not been true for over a generation.
The expulsion of Militant and the censure applied to any radical ideas as ‘pie in the sky’ by the ‘new’ Labour regime under Blair and Brown has come to an end.
Yet making the connection between theory and practice remains the perennial and enduring challenge for Marx’s ideas. It is one thing to have one’s ideas talked about, even positively. It is quite another for these ideas to be used by a mass of citizens to not only guide their activism and ambitions but also led to tangible achievements. Maybe come the 300th anniversary of his birth, there will be a different story to tell.
Dr Gregor Gall is an affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow