Karl Marx’s birthday on 5 May, his 200th, has been the subject of many efforts to explore his continuing relevance and impact on the world. Perhaps the oddest commemoration, though, has been the gift from China of a five metre-tall bust of the great man to the city of Marx’s birth, Trier, Germany, along with the inevitable tchotchkes of contemporary consumerism such as a rubber ducky-style bathtub ornament bearing the likeness of the founder of communism.
My late grandfather was a union man through and through, and it was central to the core of his very being. He was of the era when the success of a trade union was anything but certain. His kind of union leaders had been people like David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, and the national leaders of his own union – the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers Union. They had been in the “trenches” when it had been hard going. That was back when union organisers would sometimes feel the wrath of those bosses and the capitalists behind them when company security guards – with their leather jackets and police truncheons – would often break up a strike the hard way, with a klap on the head – or more – as with the violence of the strikebreaking of Ford’s River Rouge factory.
But as much as men such as my grandfather hated and despised the bosses, they also had little time for the hardliners of the Communist Party and their allies trying to gain control of the country’s labour unions. Instead of creating a world where everyone would lustily sing the Internationale; a world where each would gain goods according to their needs and where they would each work according to their ability; or follow the course of democratic centralism that really meant follow me and the party or be ostracised or worse – my grandfather, and others like him in the American labour movement of the 1930s and ‘40s, believed instead in the gospel of people like Samuel Gompers.
Gompers had been the founder of the cigar-makers’ union and then the American Federation of Labor at the end of the 19th century. When Gompers was once interviewed by a less than friendly journalist, he had been asked what the unions and Gompers really wanted (in effect, being asked if it was the socialist Utopia and the destruction of capitalism – or something else even worse), Gompers had succinctly replied, “More!” Better conditions, wages and treatment.
Watch: Who was Karl Marx, by DW
But just like more standard-issue communists, those unionists’ socialist-influenced, non-communist tradition was heir to the intellectual revolution enunciated by Karl Marx, born 200 years ago on 5 May 1818. Marx was the grandson of rabbis on both sides of his family and his parents were members of the increasingly assimilated German-Jewish middle class then emerging in the aftermath of Napoleon’s political revolution. Marx himself had been raised as a Christian in the city of Trier, then part of the Prussian Rhineland provinces which was already part of the rising wave of industrialisation that had already taken hold in Britain and elsewhere.
By the time Marx had moved semi-permanently to London, following his departure from home at the age of 17; gotten married and become the father of seven children whom he often failed to care for effectively (often leaving this burdensome financial task to his sometime co-author Frederick Engels, the scion of a textile magnate); and become an increasingly influential polemicist, journalist and political theorist, Marx had largely formulated a new sensibility about and appreciation of humanity’s relationship to the still-new discipline of economics.
Marx was not the first writer to contemplate a problematic relationship between labour and capitalists. Others had argued for a natural tension between the two forces and a different way forward for humanity, but Marx did something special with those ideas floating around that had begun to take hold as growing urbanisation and industrialisation produced increasingly vast zones of those “dark satanic mills”, then spreading across England, parts of Germany, France, Belgium, and then on into America as well.
It was Marx’s particular genius to frame this economic question as a logical extension of Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel’s famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis logic and then apply that insight to the economic and social change in human circumstances brought about by the enormously disruptive forces unleashed by the new industrial revolution. But Marx went further, as he argued that this whole abstract conception was a profoundly scientific insight – a law – like the use of physics and engineering in the mechanisation of industrial production, ongoing all around Marx. These changes were a clear demonstration, to Marx, of the giant, impersonal machinery that was the impact of economics on history, as well as on the historians’ and social theorists’ landscape that had heretofore focused mostly on great men, political rhetoric, and the march of armies and navies, rather than on invisible forces such as economics.
Marx’s writings and discussions did one more thing of great consequence. Through the force of this writing and argument, Marx and his co-author were providing a profoundly teleological view of the grand sweep of history and human society – and the possibilities of progress, in comparison to arguments all around him that spoke to the natural order of things as they were. And always should be.
This view, that human progress goes through stages, as each stage inevitably generates the raw material for the next stage, and as this equally inevitable clash then combined to produce a new stage of human circumstances, gave hope to those stuck at the bottom of the heap. There would be strife and struggles aplenty before things would get better, but eventually they would, as capitalism eventually yielded to socialism and then communism (just as feudalism had yielded to capitalism). At that juncture, the state would wither away as the cornucopia of industrialisation generated enough for everyone and there would no longer be struggles over resources and between the haves and have-nots. Or, as the old joke had it, eventually there would be peaches and cream for everyone (just as long as you didn’t dislike peaches or cream – or were allergic to them).
Of course, Marx’s vision had been of the inevitability of those titanic class struggles taking place in the most heavily industrialised societies first. That was the logic of scientific Marxism. For Marx, this would necessarily be the progress of things in Britain, Germany, the US and the like – because that was where the largest bodies of the proletariat were to be found, and where they would be most likely discontented with their oppression. Marx did not expect such a revolt to come to the fore in a place like imperial Russia, or the backward rural autocracies of East Asia or Africa (even as western colonies), because their respective proletariats were too small relative to the vast bulk of their rural peasantry, sunk in the superstitions of religion and locked into age-old ways of living.
The great irony of history, of course, was that the first successful communist revolution came first in Russia, instead of among those oppressed workers in Leeds, Manchester or Lille, let alone in Detroit, New York City, or Cincinnati. But that was a Russia that had been overwhelmed, amid appalling carnage and civilian chaos, by nearly four years of brutal warfare in World War I. It was actually a small cadre of activists and theorists for a workers’ party who had been injected into Russia by a Germany desperate to knock Russia out of the war (rather than a vast uprising of the country’s proletariat). This injection of Vladimir Lenin had been carried out so that Germany could finally bring the majority of its still-formidable armies to bear on the western front of Great Britain and France, before American troops could arrive in sufficient numbers to help overwhelm Germany.
Soon enough, though, Marxist doctrine became captured by the idea that the party had a monopoly on wisdom and therefore had the right to rule and deal with finality with anyone whose ideas were in disagreement with the party’s. Through communist revolutions and conquests during and after World War II, each government took up the totalitarian temptation and imposed a form of authority that brooked no opposition and required adherence to the party’s leadership no matter where it led. It can be argued that the murderous regimes that came to power in Russia, then China, and elsewhere, were near-inevitable outcomes of Marx’s ideas (if not predicted by Marx himself), as interpreted by party leaders and cadres alike, as millions were sacrificed for party supremacy.
By contrast, in the trade union movement my grandfather had so strongly supported, he had no illusions about the altruism of the bosses or their bosses. But he and others like him felt it was precisely because of their numbers that they would, eventually, most of the time, prevail in negotiations for the things that mattered for actual people: better pay and benefits, better working conditions, more equitable treatment of workers and the fair resolution of workplace disagreements. (This approach was much closer to the social democratic movements in Europe and the combined socialism and free market capitalism in the Scandinavian nations.)
And it was their right to back candidates in electoral politics who most subscribed to the union’s views on tangible things like improving the social security net, healthcare for all, protection of civil rights and the like. By contrast, the chimera of worker control of industry and the economy somehow would never be able to deliver the goods during a worker’s lifetime of toil.
Marx and his followers had always argued that workers only had their labour to offer in that unequal contest that was the battleground of an economy and that they must seize control of the whole if they were to improve their lot in any meaningful way. It was easy enough to believe such an evolution in history and an economy. A writer with the acuity and sympathies of the young George Orwell, for example, had described with great affection the anarchist control of Barcelona at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and its associated social and economic levelling, once the bosses had been vanquished.
But within a year, as the communists gained control over Barcelona, Orwell’s view had become much more morose about the political enforcement ongoing against workers by the Spanish Communist Party. And a decade later, after he had become thoroughly familiar with the Soviet purges and the dictatorial control and killing it had occasioned, his support for socialism remained strong even as he turned even further away from communism in his final two novels.
In the years that followed, the revelations of the realities of Stalinist rule, the suppression of both the Hungarian revolt and then the Prague Spring, and then the vast killings by the Khmer Rouge and in China continued to make the argument to many that communist party control was inimical to the rights of the population, despite its promise. But, in the end, it took a careful, canny revolution launched by actual shipyard workers in Poland (along with the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan) to bring down the state socialism of the Soviet Union and its satrapies. This came with the realisation that this system was unable to provide the things the populations wanted for their daily lives.
Ultimately, the real death knell for communism in the present came in China. While the party has – so far – been able to maintain its hold on the political realm (increasingly like any other authoritarian regime in history), it has done so by largely relinquishing any claims to leadership in the economic sphere to private enterprise. Or, in the words of Deng Xiaoping who had come to power after the crushing of political dissent in Beijing in the 1980s, “To be rich is wonderful!” Free labour unions, with their efforts to advance actual worker rights, still remain virtually non-existent in China, just as in places like Cuba or Venezuela.
In considering this anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday, The Economist argued:
“A good subtitle for a biography of Karl Marx would be ‘a study in failure’. Marx claimed that the point of philosophy was not just to understand the world but to improve it. Yet his philosophy changed it largely for the worst: the 40% of humanity who lived under Marxist regimes for much of the 20th century endured famines, gulags and party dictatorships. Marx thought his new dialectical science would allow him to predict the future as well as understand the present. Yet he failed to anticipate two of the biggest developments of the 20th century—the rise of fascism and the welfare state [such as the struggles my grandfather and his counterparts in other unions tried to deal with by opposing the first and supporting the latter] — and wrongly believed communism would take root in the most advanced economies. Today’s only successful self-styled Marxist regime is an enthusiastic practitioner of capitalism (or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’).
“Yet for all his oversights, Marx remains a monumental figure. At the 200th anniversary of his birth, which falls on May 5th, interest in him is as lively as ever. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, is visiting Trier, Marx’s birthplace, where a statue of Marx donated by the Chinese government will be unveiled. The British Library, where he did the research for ‘Das Kapital’, is putting on a series of exhibitions and talks. And publishers are producing a cascade of books on his life and thought, from ‘Das Kapital’-sized doorstops (Sven-Eric Liedman’s ‘A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx’), to Communist Manifesto-slim pamphlets (a second edition of Peter Singer’s ‘Marx: A Very Short Introduction’).”
This same journal concluded, however:
“The great theme of history in the advanced world since Marx’s death has been reform rather than revolution. Enlightened politicians extended the franchise so working-class people had a stake in the political system. They renewed the regulatory system so that great economic concentrations were broken up or regulated. They reformed economic management so economic cycles could be smoothed and panics contained. The only countries where Marx’s ideas took hold were backward autocracies such as Russia and China.
“Today’s great question is whether those achievements can be repeated. The backlash against capitalism is mounting – if more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms of both their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man—not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them.”
One other crucial element of the present (and on into the future) that Marx could not predict, of course, has been a massive, ongoing, accelerating change in the future of work itself. Economic power is no longer a function of those three simple but traditional components: land/resources, labour, and capital. The key ingredient missing in that triad is information/ knowledge/ technological advancement. Embracing this and putting such knowledge to work is a prime reason why so many East Asian nations such as South Korea, with no discernible natural resources and initially a severe capital deficit, have made such extraordinary economic advances, offering citizens orders of magnitude growth in personal income as they have successfully harnessed this element.
But even more important is the very future of work at all. Economists, social theorists and technological mavens are already wondering what will be the fate of work and employment when the vast majority of production has devolved onto AI-driven automation, making human hands, even smart ones, increasingly redundant. How will humans find self-fulfilment without the drive to work or starve? The decoupling of work from workers could be the final death blow to Marxism – or perhaps the ultimate fulfilment of his admonition that production would come from those who can, and output will go to those who need it. How would Marx have dealt with this?
The great irony of Marx’s anniversary has come amid commemorations in the city of his birth place, Trier, Germany. The Chinese have gifted the city with a giant statue of the man – an event that has occasioned some astonishing arguments between Trier’s residents. As The Washington Post reported the other day:
“Nearly two centuries ago, the 17-year-old son of a vineyard owner left this tranquil riverside city on the edge of the Prussian empire to make his way in the world — and maybe shake it up a bit. On Saturday, after inspiring untold numbers of revolutions, repressive regimes and ponderous grad school seminars, Karl Marx came home. In bronze. By way of China. And, oh, he is now 18 feet tall.
“The unveiling of a two-ton Chinese-funded sculpture to honor the German philosopher on the 200th anniversary of his birth brought scads of tourists to Trier, where his life began. While here, they took in Marx lectures, toured the Marx family home and bought vast quantities of marked-up Marx souvenirs. (The Marx rubber duckies — wild gray mane framing bright orange bill — were a particular hit.)
“The capitalist exploitation of his birthday may not have thrilled the co-author of the Communist Manifesto. But the proponent of proletarian uprisings might have been cheered by another facet of the celebration: the struggle. Not of the class variety. But a bitter one, nonetheless.
“The city is split over whether a democratic nation such as Germany should be erecting monuments that are paid for, designed and built by an authoritarian one such as China. The divide spilled into the streets Saturday with dueling demonstrations for and against the monolith, forming a noisy backdrop to the statue’s official dedication. On one side, hundreds of flag-waving members of Germany’s fringe Communist Party cheered. On the other — separated by barricades and riot police — an eclectic group of Free Tibet, anti-fascist and pro-human rights protesters chanted and blew whistles in a vain effort to drown out the speeches.
“City officials say they see nothing wrong with the statue’s unusual path to Trier’s downtown. The statue, Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe insisted Saturday, is not about the ‘glorification’ of Marx. Instead, he told the large crowd that had assembled under a cloudless blue sky, it is meant to spark conversation — and strengthen international bonds…. But others in Germany — a nation divided for nearly a half-century due in no small part to its native son’s theories — say city officials are being naive about a project that neatly aligns with Chinese state propaganda.
“How important Marx is to that agenda was underlined by the visit of two senior Chinese officials who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony. The officials — the country’s ambassador to Germany and the deputy chief of the Information Ministry, the government’s propaganda arm — each paid tribute to Marx, although not in terribly Marxian terms. The ambassador, Shi Mingde, said China had ‘modernized’ Marx’s theories — a veiled reference to the country’s hearty embrace of much of modern capitalism — and boasted that China is responsible for 30 percent of global economic growth. ‘For that,’ he said, ‘we can thank Karl Marx.’ ”
Deng might have had a different idea about that, perhaps.
In thinking about Marx’s impact on modern history, it is fair to say his influence has something in common with such visionaries as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. In each case, these thinkers explained that some old truths were insufficient to explain the real nature of man’s place in the universe. Each of these men were products of their age, and with it an urge to explore what lay beneath the surface.
With Freud, it was to bring to bear the realisation that it was not solely conscious thought that governed behaviour, not by a long shot. That unconscious, the id, the reptilian brain had a big hand in things as well. For Darwin, it was his place to show that the shape of current and ancient creatures on Earth – including humans – was not a province of the omniscient will of some divine presence. (Later scientists would find the actual mechanisms for evolution, once the genetic code and the structure of DNA was revealed.)
And Einstein (together with the further revolution in physics brought about by his exploration of relativity and then by a host of quantum physicists) broke the spell of the Newtonian clockwork universe, guided by straightforward rules from the interiors of atoms to the movement of the interstellar galaxies.
And Marx? He had peeled back the curtain on history and the economy to show that society had mechanisms buried deep in the very structure of things – and that people were right to struggle in order to alter those seemingly immutable arrangements to improve their lives. DM
Harvard's first black faculty member was a dentist. Dr George Franklin Grant also invented the wooden golf tee.