An iconic political philosopher | Sunday Observer

An iconic political philosopher

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

If you remember a man and his contribution to society after 200 years of his birth, there is something remarkable about him. On May 5, 2018 we marked the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx (1818-1883) who was one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Along with Friedrich Engels he founded scientific socialism or what is popularly known as communism today.

Marx was born in Trier on May 5, 1818 and educated at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. Shortly after contributing his first article to the Cologne newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung, Marx became its editor. He vehemently criticized the political establishment and social conditions. When Engels visited Paris, Marx met him and it was found that they were kindred spirits. Both were involved in the international working class movement. He was ordered to leave Paris in 1845 because of his revolutionary activities. Marx settled down in Brussels and organized a network of revolutionary groups in European countries. In 1847, he and Engels formulated the well-known Communist Manifesto, aimed at overthrowing the capitalist class and paving the way for a worldwide working-class revolution, to establish a classless society.

Hegel’s idealism

After the manifesto appeared, revolutions occurred in France and Germany. When the Belgian government banished Marx, he was arrested and tried in Cologne. Eventually, he was expelled from Germany. Then he moved to France but was expelled from there too. Thereafter, Marx moved to London and lived there until his death. His magnum opus was “Das Kapital” which was a systematic and historical analysis of the economy of the capitalist system. Marx’s influence during his life was not great. However, it increased after his death. His ideas came to be known as Marxism or scientific socialism. His theories were revived by Lenin, leading to profound political events in Russia and Eastern Europe.

As a philosopher Marx owes a great deal to George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). He borrowed Hegel’s notion of “dialectic.” However, Marx rejected Hegel’s idealism and his notion of truth unfolding towards the Absolute in favour of a purely atheistic “dialectical materialism.” For Marx, economics was the primary conditioning factor of life. According to dialectic materialism, there is a three-sided conflict between economic classes. The landowners are opposed to the middle classes. Industrialists became a new economic class. Capitalism generates the antithetical force of the proletariat or the working classes. Marx believed, socialism is the only solution to the economic conflict in any country.

Even after 200 years of his birth, Marx’s influence is felt in politics. According to the French philosopher, Raymond Aron, “Marx’s work can be explained in five minutes, five hours, five years or in half a century.” For some people Marxism is only a utopian vision as no country has a 100 per cent Marxist government. For others Marxism is a blueprint for totalitarian regimes. Whatever that may be, Marx’s core ideas cannot be dismissed even in the 21st century.

Classless society

The Communist Manifesto, co-authored by Marx and Engels, says, the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle. Although no country has been able to solve this problem, Marx scientifically analyzed it. According to him, the ruling class controls the means of production such as, factories, farms and mines.

The working class or the proletariat is forced to sell their labour. He saw this conflict at the heart of capitalism. He wanted the proletariat to gain control of political power. It is a kind of “dictatorship of the proletariat.” When this happens it is a smooth transition of power from capitalism to communism. In such a set-up the means of production will pass from private ownership to collective ownership. Vladimir Lenin said, such a transition can be had only through a revolution. The best example is the October Revolution (1917) which occurred in Russia.

Marx and Engels wrote the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848 at a time Europe was becoming a fertile ground for revolutions. Their ultimate aim was to usher in a classless society in which workers hold political power. According to Marx, societies pass through six important stages: Primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. The abolition of private property in Russia and China resulted in millions of deaths.

The Communist Manifesto has a popular slogan: “Workers of the world unite!” There is no evidence to show that workers of the world have united, but it was a laudable idea that transcends national borders.

For Marx, religion was a kind of drug such as opium that helped the exploited to suppress their pain and misery. Religion offered illusions and salvation to relieve the oppressed classes.

The idea was used to justify the purging of religions in Russia, China and some European countries. However, religions in those countries have not disappeared completely. This is because religion brings some kind of spiritual solace to everybody including the oppressed classes. Some scholars believe, Marx’s views of religion have distanced people from communism.

Some well-known authors have scoffed at communism. Oscar Wilde said, “What a communist he is! He would have an equal distribution of sin as well as property.” Eric Hoffer wrote, “Communists are frustrated capitalists.” Heine’s words are even more powerful: “Communism possesses a language which every person can understand. Its elements are hunger, envy, and death.”

Despite such harsh criticism levelled against communism, Karl Marx remains an iconic philosopher and social reformer par excellence.

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