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The impossibility of burying Karl Marx


Here then is Marx with no warts at all

Among the academic cognoscenti Desmond Mallikarachchi has been known as a senior teacher of philosophy and psychology at that still most durable citadel of higher education, the University of Peradeniya. He has an impressive phalanx of degrees from both here and abroad including a PhD London and is a Honorary Research Fellow of that University. But most people have known him as a quiet academic, a conscientious guru patiently tilling the fields of academe, in fact the kind of university teacher who has kept the torch of learning aflame while all around them the more flashy university types have been building palaces and investing in the latest make of car.

So it might have come as a surprise to most people who do not really know him that Mallikarachchi has come out with two treatises (among no less than six recent volumes) firstly on Karl Marx whose obituary has been written for two centuries both by conservatives and revisionists alike and even more pungently on Karl Popper who was perhaps the most acerbic of Marx's critics prompting the thought in some quarters whether he had had a pathological hatred of the Rabbinical German ideologue.

Greatest tragedy

But as these two books 'Marxvadi Rachana' and 'Karl Popper - Marxvadaye Vyaja Vivechakayek' reveal Mallikarachchi has drunk deeply at the well of not merely Marxism but also pre-Marxist as well as post-Marxist thought. He has a sure grasp of the dialectics, intricacies, theological debates and casuistry of the Marxist church and canon. What is more written in chaste Sinhala and with the proper political phraseology these books are an invaluable addition to radical Sinhala literature.

The greatest tragedy of the Marxist and Left movement in Sri Lanka was, or course, the fact that although the Left parties of all varieties based themselves on the working class (which needless to say was educated in Sinhala only) there was almost no political literature addressed to this class in that language. Both the LSSP and the CP were content to bring out newspapers in Sinhala but these were stodgy publications written mostly by English-educated bourgeois intellectuals which found no resonance with the average factory worker and could not anyway compete with the mainstream capitalist press. There were writers like Ananda Kumara who wrote works such as 'Panthi Satana' (if I am not mistaken) but these were writers outside the mainstream Left parties. I may again be mistaken but it is doubtful whether even the Communist Manifesto was translated into Sinhala. The only means on which the Left parties depended to carry on propaganda was through political classes which too were conducted by bourgeois intellectuals (sometimes of a deracinated nature) who took a Patronising view of their working class adherents.

Two-party system

In such a context it became more than easy for the JVP having called a plague on both the LSSP and the CP (and the CP-Peking to boot) to mesmerise a new generation of petit-bourgeois youth duped by the two-party system with what came to be known as the five classes. The JVP itself brought out no political tracts or engaged in any polemics. Their path to the unique Ceylonese Revolution was the Five Lectures delivered by Rohana Wijeweera who had assumed the code name of Dr. Tissa.

Today, however in spite of the dirges delivered to Marxism by its triumphalist critics and Mr. Fukuyama's war cry of the 'End of History and the Last Man' (presumably his cherubic self) there is a renewed interest in Marxism the world over. Even the post-modernists who dismiss everything but themselves cannot but make a ritual nod towards Marxism even to say that it is quite dead. Whether in Germany, France, Britain or even in the USA not only Left-inclined parties but the Green Movement and the Feminist Movement as well are drawing inspiration from the well-springs of the dead master. This is why it is apposite that in Sri Lanka which in spite of all its noisy populist and radical rhetoric there is a sad paucity of Marxist writings in Sinhala Dr. Mallikarachchi should have filled this long-existing void.

Forming the centrepiece of this 186-page book modestly priced at Rs. 200 is an address delivered by the writer in January 2001 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Although the writer rejects the dichotomy posed by Althusser between the Young Marx and the Mature Marx he is fascinated by the essay written by Marx under the title 'Reflections of a Youth on Choosing an Occupation.' This can be taken as the earliest mirror of the later Marxian vision. Even more important is the letter the young Marx addresses to his father at the age of 19 in 1837 which the writer reproduces in full in the translation done by David Maclellan.

New directions

It is basically a criticism of and reflection on the philosophy of the then dominant thinker of the day Hegel whom Marx later famously said had been standing on his head until he and Engels placed him on his feet. Marx begins by saying that there are moments in the life of men when they glimpse the limitations of a particular age and the way forward towards new directions. It is natural says the young Marx that at this point any man should turn lyrical because such times can either be the swan song of an epic or the chorus of a new age. This was the young man who was even then in love with Jenny (his life-long companion through adversity) and was writing lyric poetry. But by the time the letter ends he has not only broken with the idealism of Kant and Fische but in a wonderfully lyrical line which prefigures his later thinking writes: 'A curtain has closed. The inner sanctum of my shrine is in ruins. A pantheon of new gods has to arrive.' (I am freely translating from the Sinhala since I do not have the original before me).

After explaining the Communist Manifesto and Marx's central credo Mallikarachchi comes to grips with some of the central problems which have been raised both by Marx's traducers as well as well-meaning critics. Didn't the revolution as envisaged by Marx take place because there was a qualitative development in both the forces and relationships of production? Or was the authoritarianism of Stalinism responsible for destroying the humanism of Marxism? Or was it that after the demise of Marx it ceased to be a practical political praxis and became merely a theoretical discourse?

It is Mallikarachchi's contention that after the emergence of the Frankfurter School Marxism became ossified because rather than become a political practice and a weapon it became a playground for sophistry, an arena for discourse. Although he praises such post-Marxist thinkers as Gramsci, Althusser, Habermas, Miliband and even Derrida he feels made too much of an intellectual exercise of Marxism as a result of which it lost its cutting political edge and its use as a political tool. Mallikarachchi may well be correct for today radical movements draw their inspiration for anti-systemic action not so much from the doctrinal mysteries and rituals of post-Marxism as through direct action programs on the streets such as in Seattle sometime ago.

The writer also sees certain lacunae in Marxism from the point of view of our century. For example the power Marx spoke of in his time is quite opposed to what prevails today. Today knowledge has become a dominant means of power while it is also problematic where exactly power resides in this post-nation state situation. Here Mallikarachchi says much can be gained by Focault who sees power as residing not in any single office or arm of the state but literally everywhere. New definitions of the centres and uses of power are necessary in such a context.

Next comes the question of Money which is quite different to what Marx meant by Capital. While capital gets accumulated within enterprises money today is more mobile and circulates at a dizzying pace. Here the writer quotes from the reputed sociologist George Simel's work 'Philosophy of Money' which opens with the lines 'Money has become the god-head now.' (Incidentally Simel may be amused if he knew that a Sinhala film of the 1960's was titled 'Salli Deviyange Malli' (Money is God's Brother). So the multiple uses of money in determining class relationships will also have to be examined more deeply.

Advertising industry

Finally what about Man himself in this new century 150 years after Marx's and Engel's epochal document? The alienation of man of which Marx spoke continues although in different disguises. The average working man may be richer than in Marx's time (there is even talk of embourgeoisement) but his needs and requirements (often unnecessary and futile) are being induced by the octopus-like advertising industry. The youth drifting about in the capitals of the west are being seduced by tawdry forms of popular culture and vulgar forms of entertainment. Emotional and spiritual life are becoming steadily barren and devoid of meaning.

These are all valid questions Mallikarachchi raises and discusses and their advantage and use for a Sinhala-educated generation can by no means be underestimated. As one of our best bi-lingual minds he belongs in a direct line to scholars such as the late Newton Gunasinghe and perhaps the best testament one can pay him is his own tribute to Ralph Milliband an eminent British political scientist who died in 1993. Describing Milliband as a 'Common sense Socialist' Mallikarachchi wrote in this same newspaper in 1994 and quoted one of his last most memorable sentences: 'The ultimate purpose of counter-hegemonic struggle is to make socialism the common sense of the epoch. This involves two things. A radical critique of the prevailing social order and an affirmation that an entirely different social order... is not only desirable but possible.'

Desmond Mallikarachchi's book on Marx then is an act of homage, a labour of love and an offering to a new generation of the young. Some people (including Marx's friends, colleagues and contemporaries) have described him as at being at times cantankerous, arrogant, boorish and the like but Mallikarachchi even exculpates the master from all these failings which after all are only human frailties common to anybody. Here then is Marx with no warts at all.

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