On Marx: Commemorating Bicentenary of Marx’s Birth - P J James

26 April 2018

Commemoration of anniversaries of birth and death of great leaders and historical moments connected with them are ideal situation for intense debate and discussions for evaluating the relevance of their contributions with respect to the present. May 5, 2018 marks the 200th birth anniversary day of Karl Marx. February, 2018 was the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto and just before that the world observed Capital’s 150th anniversary in the autumn of 2017. This note is with regard to the bicentenary of Marx’s birth which the world is observing on May 5, 2018.

At the graveside of Marx, Friedrich Engels said: “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.” Even anti-Marxists need not have any difference with this statement of Engels as Marx is the most admired and the most widely read scholar from the second half of 19th century. After the death of Marx, his great works, including those that remained obscure for a time except in the writings and speeches of Engels and of left intellectuals of Europe, were placed on world stage by Lenin and October Revolution. In the 21st century when capitalism is confronting one of the most prolonged crises, attraction to Marx and interest in reading his books are again bouncing back. Of course, this attraction towards Marxism becomes relevant only when the great works of Marx together with Engels including their political interventions are understood in relation to the historical context in which they lived and worked. Unlike religious books, as a scientific theory and a comprehensive world outlook, Marxism can never be a dogma, or a closed chapter or a finalized text and it leaves several unresolved questions and blank spaces which can only be filled by successive revolutions and impending advancements appropriately incorporating both the ‘time’ and ‘space’ dimensions in to Marxist theory and practice.

While being one of the greatest scholars of all time, Marx was a political activist involving in revolutionary struggles and therefore was expelled from many countries. He became the brain and leader of the International Working Men’s Association also known as the First International during 1864 to 1872 and stood with the Paris Commune of 1871, the first socialist experiment led by the working class. Rather than clinging dogmatically to his positions, Marx was always ready to change his views by pursuing the method of seeking truth from facts. Marx’s greatness is not only with regard to his sharpness and clarity of thought towards the concrete realities but also in his scientific approach to changing those realities. For, it was Marx himself who had asserted that but for the phenomenon of change everything else will be subject to continuous change. Marxism is also subject to this law of change.

Marxism and its Methodology

Though Communist Manifesto was written as a political statement, as Program of the Communist League together with Engels when he was 29 years old, Marx’s greatest contribution is the unraveling of the laws of motion of capitalism in Capital in a way which is fundamentally at variance with that of his contemporaries in various schools of thought belonging to German Philosophy, British Political Economy and French Political theory. However, after capitalism’s transformation to imperialism in the late 19th century followed by Lenin’s epoch-making study on it, under its long colonial and postwar neocolonial trajectory in the 20th century and further expansion as globalized neoliberal imperialism in the 21st century when capitalism after outliving its usefulness has become a thousand-fold more oppressive, exploitative and pernicious than Marx’s time, what requires now is a more rigorous application of Marxism and Marx’s methodology according to the concrete situation. On the other hand, on account of its ideological and political weakness, the Left in general ( or the various Marxist schools of thought) has not been in a position to take the badly needed ideological and political responsibility in this regard. For instance, today a mechanical interpretation or a mere parroting of the contradiction between capital and labour is an insufficient analysis for unfolding the complex process of exploitation and oppression, as sharpening contradictions have emerged in other domains having manifold dimensions. In fact Marx, being very much aware of the inevitable historical and spatial limitations of his analysis himself had given provision for further extensions of his standard analysis of the capitalist mode of production as applicable to different social formations.

A best example in this regard is his conceptualization of the “Asiatic mode of production”, with reference to his understanding of the caste system in India, “the jewel on the British crown”, without which the mode of production, division of labour and surplus value extraction in this part of the world could not be analyzed in a dialectical way. Even while remaining in Britain, the leading capitalist country at that time and devoting much of his time for analyzing capitalism, the fact that Marx devoted a lot of his time to the study of non-European societies and the destructive role of colonialism in Asia and Africa has not got the required attention. Unlike later-day “Marxists”, Marx was well aware of the fact that class analysis in Asiatic society would be abstract without reference to the unique and notoriously inhuman caste system having deep-rooted and inseparable ramifications both at the base and the superstructure. According to Marxist analysis, the whole essence of a social order is ultimately determined by the character of the ownership of the means of production. In this context, ‘Eurocentric’ analysis of property ownership and the mode of production are inapplicable, for instance, to India (now composed of more than 1.3 billion people) where the oppressed castes, a major chunk of the population who for millennia are condemned to live in the periphery of and even beyond the ruling structure and as such are historically denied ownership of the means of production including land on account of the specific “ ensemble of social relations”, resulting in a unique pattern of economy, polity, society and culture. As such, in almost all writings of Marx such as German Ideology, Poverty of Philosophy, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and above all Capital, his magnum opus, and including even articles to the New York Daily Tribune such as “Future Results of British Rule in India”, Marx was particularly keen to refer to the crucial role of caste in the Indian sub-continent. It is this unparalleled far-sightedness and ingenuity displayed by Marx from the very beginning that made his conceptualization and methodology universal irrespective of the specificities of different social formations.

Or, take another example. One of the usual allegations against Marxism from academic circles including, of course, neo-Marxist and postmodernist traditions which plead for a “greening of Marxism” has been with regard to the so called “materialistic determinism” and “technological optimism” traditionally stamped on it. Several anti-Marxists are quick to pinpoint Marxism’s alleged disregard of the environmental question and the destruction that capitalism causes to ecology. In fact, these allegations are false, as Marx and Engels were the first to identify the cardinal importance of ecology and who pleaded for a ‘development’ that is fully in harmony with nature. To be precise, the responsibility of camouflaging the essential prerequisites of a Marxist paradigm of development and its difference with the capitalist model of development from mainstream discussion primarily goes to the mechanical materialist tradition associated not only with regard to the leadership of the Second International but even after Lenin whose success in leading October Revolution was mainly due to his uncompromising fight against mechanical materialism.

Obviously, when Marx was unraveling capitalism, it was in its youth following Industrial Revolution. At that time, capitalism in England had become the dominant mode of production including the unfolding of fundamentally new social, cultural and intellectual avenues together with the creation of an industrial proletariat. Capital accumulation became the basic law that governed society. Compared with previous social formations including the prolonged dark feudal period, the capitalist form of accumulation was ‘constructive’ as it enabled a prodigious and continuous acceleration in the productivity of social labor. Thus, while being the most powerful and best known critic of capitalism and laissez-faire, Marx himself acknowledged bourgeoisie’s efforts to constantly transform the instruments of production for accomplishing the marvels of productivity. Being a superior mode compared with feudalism, during its short period, capitalism fulfilled undeniable progressive functions. As a new stage in human history with an increase in material production and having a dynamic economic arrangement, new political and cultural consciousness, capitalism shook the old aristocratic/feudal/archaic systems to its foundations.

However, while acknowledging its historically constructive role in comparison with previous “modes”, Marx was unequivocal in pinpointing the destructive aspect of capitalism, an aspect often relegated to the background or even ignored by self-proclaimed Marxists. Marx observed that capital accumulation destroys the two bases of social wealth by undermining “the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (Capital, Vol. I), or both nature and the human beings. Explaining human beings themselves a part of nature and describing the labor and production process as part of the “universal metabolic process”, Marx called for the overthrow of capitalism that simultaneously plunders labour and nature for a rational regulation of the metabolism between humanity and nature.

According to Marx, no one owned the earth; they held it only in usufruct as “good heads of the household,” and were meant to pass it on in improved condition to future generations (Vol. 3). Implicit in this was a materialist conception of nature upheld by Marx along with the materialist conception of history that he enunciated. Making a fundamental departure from the bourgeois approach of synonymously using or equating “productivity” with “profitability”, Marx envisioned how socialism was more “productive” in the absence of the profit system. That is, unlike the post-Marxist and postmodern prognoses which, though from apparently differing persuasions put both Marxist and “capitalist modernization”- the latter often being interpreted in essence as a combination of scientific rationality and technological achievements - paradigms of development together in one basket, the Marxist approach to development from the very beginning has been at variance with that of the bourgeoisie. Socialism was conceived by Marx as a superior “mode of production” not merely on account of its capability of accelerating material production required for meeting people’s needs and achieving an “equitable” distribution of resources but mainly for achieving a higher stage in the development of human civilization together with the abolition of capital’s stranglehold over nature. Unless these issues are not taken in their proper perspective and further developed as part of Marxist theory and practice and incorporated into the political program of communists, vast majority of the working and oppressed peoples will remain outside the influence of revolutionary project.

Universal Character

Even while concentrating on the laws of motion of capital and the historical-political-economic context behind the accumulation process, Marx devoted a lot of his time to the study of non-European societies and the destructive role of colonialism on the periphery of capitalism. Even after the formal ending of colonialism, this destructiveness identified by Marx in the 19th century has become more “pernicious and sinister” under neocolonialism and vast majority of world people who inhabit Afro-Asian-Latin American countries are the worst victims of imperialist oppression. In spite of that, communist leadership capable of mobilizing people’s fury against the capitalist-imperialist system is not forthcoming with analysis of these changes, and this ideological-political weakness of the Left is effectively utilized to divert opposition against neoliberal globalization to safe channels. Mechanical adherence to capital-labour contradiction disregarding the complex processes of 21st century surplus value extraction has alienated the working class and all toiling and oppressed peoples from institutionalized parties and falling in to the depoliticizing trap set by postmodernism as propped up by imperialist think-tanks.

The fact that Marx never confined his analysis to Europe and that he was fully aware of the possible emergence of major contradictions in future is clear from his conceptualization on different social formations other than classical capitalism and from his own concerns regarding ecology as briefly outlined above. At a time when several anti-communist and postmodern streams of thought such as orientalism and “identity politics” are stamping allegations of Eurocentrism and mechanical materialism on Marx, clarity on this aspect is of paramount importance today to enthuse, politicize and organize the marginalized and the oppressed along revolutionary lines. Moreover, the issues today are far more complex than the situation in the 19th century when Marx was directly dealing with industrial capitalism in which the society was sharply polarizing into two well-defined camps-the bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat. However, following the footsteps of Lenin who developed Marxism through his theory of the hegemony of finance capital, what we see today is its global expansion to the farthest limits through internationalization of production and financial corporatization even as proletariat is increasingly fragmented and disaggregated. Of course, though Marx had introduced the concept of ‘fictitious capital’ and “a new aristocracy of finance” in the third volume of Capital, under pre-monopoly capitalism these trends were subordinate to industrial capital.

But under 21st century capitalism, as evident from the 2008 global economic and financial crisis, led by finance capital, the really productive economy is being reduced to a “bubble on a whirlpool of speculation” and the so called development itself has become just like the “by-product of the activities of a casino.” On account of finance capital-engineered deindustrialization and depeasantization, coupled with casualization at global level, unorganized or “informal working class” has emerged as the rapidly growing segment of international proletariat today. That is, just as transformation in the form of capital, the conditions of international proletariat also have changed. Thus, including slum dwellers, migrants, refugees and displaced people, the number of informal working class had already crossed 1000 million by the turn of the second decade of the 21st century. Today, a major chunk of the world urban population that has outstripped rural people is composed of the informal working class that subsists as the most wretched social class on earth.

Compared with the division of labour and surplus value extraction of erstwhile capitalism, neoliberal imperialism has brought about a new international division of labour euphemistically called “flexible specialization” and complex methods of surplus value extraction pushing down the value of labour power much below that of its global average in the cheap labour destinations of neocolonially dependent and oppressed countries of the world. The widening of international divergence in wages between imperialist and neocolonial countries and the consequent large scale plunder and shift of wealth from the latter to the former are now manifested in a super-exploitation of the proletariat in dependent countries. Put it differently, unlike the situation in classical capitalism, internationalization of monopoly finance capital is not leading to a global “equalization of wages” eliminating “local obstacles”; on the contrary, so many extra-economic factors are used by both imperialists and their compradors in neocolonially dependent countries for creating favourable conditions for super-exploitation by corporate capital. To unravel this principal form of imperialist accumulation under the concrete conditions of neoliberalism, further development of the theory of surplus value and Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism are indispensable. For, as Marx said, the ultimate source of profit is living labour.

On the Question of Alternative

From Marx’s perspective, primary means and end of production is free human development. Accordingly, freedom or liberation implies overcoming capitalism’s alienation or social separation of the producers from necessary conditions of production. It requires a complete de-commodification of both labour power and nature through establishing people’s power or what Marx calls “communal property rights”. Implicit in this program is the elimination of class-based intermediaries of wage-labour, market and state. Marx’s fundamental discovery of surplus value as emanating from the exploitation of social labour and transforming the world through class struggle should be viewed in this perception. Here it is pertinent to have clarity on certain questions around which lively debates are going on:

The first is with regard to the Marxist conception of democracy for the people and an alternative development paradigm which for Marx is “worthy of our human nature” and nourishing human beings in their natural conditions. The basic tenets of this alternative are vividly laid down in the Critique of Gotha Program written towards the final phase of Marx. In Communist Manifesto together with Engels, young Marx’s concern was with the inhuman nature of capitalism while it was in Capital that he unraveled the laws of motion of capital. But as Lenin underscored, it was in the Critique of Gotha Program that Marx unfolded his vision of the future society. It may assume different forms depending on historical, social, cultural and environmental specificities. Such an alternative shall be inseparable from the transformation to a higher, progressive mode of production and social formation in harmony with nature incorporating appropriate social, gender and cultural relations.

Second issue is connected with political power itself. Obviously, the Marxist approach to democracy and development is integrally linked up with people’s political power at all levels of decision-making. In this context, Marx’s vehement critics like Bakunin had tried to have a caricature of Marx as a “state socialist”. This portrayal of Marx is often based on his remark that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” No doubt, the accusation on Marx as a state socialist and a “party bureaucrat” is only a misconception as Marx’s vision of the “proletariat” holding political power was never through a centralized state power. On the contrary, enthused by Paris Commune, Marx’s idea was rule of the proletariat through local communes. By the slogan ‘all power to the Soviets and Communes’ both Lenin and Mao were upholding this Marxist perspective on political power. That is why Marx considered both “communist consciousness on a mass scale” and “revolutionary leadership” as not two different things but synonyms or substitutes. In fact, Marx always stood for the emergence of “consciousness” capable of transforming the whole world. Marx was also characterized as authoritarian for using the terminology “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But a reading of Marx makes it clear that Marx was forced to use this term to emphasize on the rule by the working class as an indispensable stage in the prolonged path towards salvation. On the one hand, it is also obvious that “dictatorship of the proletariat” was often used by Marx in his polemics against the Blanquists and anarchists and to expose their isolated, adventurist, secret group actions. According to Marx, unlike all preceding ruling classes, the proletarians are not for enforcing power or for becoming owners of the resources but for the abolition of all modes of appropriation and all forms of oppression.

A third misconception is regarding the alleged contradiction between the individual and the “collective” in the Marxist project. It is a fact that Marx was ruthless in his criticism of bourgeois pundits in their espousal of the’ individual’ in “civil society” (bourgeois society) which is the same as the liberal caricature of the ‘consumer’ (ordinary citizen) as the “king” or “sovereign” in capitalism. However, this critique of Marx did not at all mean the denial of the identity if the individual in society. In a system of private property ownership, according to Marx, there is little chance of the individual to freely develop his/her woman potential and unhindered flowering of true individuality is possible only in communism. Marx distanced himself from the one-sided emphasis of the “individual” as upheld by bourgeois liberalism on the one hand, and the bureaucratic perspective on the “collective” espoused by mechanical materialists on the other. In the new world envisaged by Marx the relation between individual and society is dialectical and there people will not be “isolated individuals” but will remain as “social individuals”. To reiterate, for Marx, communism will relieve individuals from the straightjacket of private property, and eventually will pave the way for the elimination of the contradiction between physical labour and mental labour.


Today under neoliberalism, capitalist-imperialist system is going through the worst-ever and prolonged crisis in its long history. All avenues of social life including latest advances in science and technology are under the custody of a handful of corporate billionaires. Poverty, hunger, unemployment, dispossession, displacement, inequality, insecurity, threat of war, ecological destruction, cultural degradation and so on have become abysmal. As a social system, capitalist-imperialism today is an anachronism.

In spite of this favourable objective situation, the Left/the communist movement is weak and is not in a position to lead the simmering discontent of the workers and oppressed masses towards the path of revolution. One of the main drawbacks of the Left and progressive leadership is their inability to take appropriate lessons from erstwhile socialist experiments and develop ideology and politics accordingly. Among other things, it is mainly in the name of the bureaucratic and centralized state apparatus of erstwhile socialist countries (whose latest embodiment is the bureaucratic state monopoly capitalism of China) that free marketers and above all postmodernism, the ideology of neoliberalism, are vehemently attacking Marxism. Together with the mechanical and dogmatic adherence to Marxist texts, inability to develop Marxism according to historical and societal specificities and conditions have also prompted the enemy camp to declare the “death of Marxism” and has created favourable situation to prop up such ultra-rightwing prognoses as “end of ideology”, “end of history”,” post-ideological politics”, etc.

At the same time, workers and oppressed people are struggling everywhere. The world today is also witnessing unprecedented and large-scale mobilizations of informal and unorganized sections. Peasants, women, migrants, refugees and oppressed castes/classes/sections as in India have started to assert themselves. It is increasingly becoming obvious that the all round crises are irresolvable within the present neoliberal ruling system. It is in this critical moment that a rereading of Marx’s great contributions become all the more significant. As incorrectly conceived by many, Marxism is not an abstract body of thought, but is both scientific and practical. It does not superimpose anything but starts from the objectively existing social relations; it is in the process of overcoming them that Marxism develops further. There are no saviours, the people themselves imbibed with political consciousness have to transform their existence. Today, when we revisit Marx on his 200th birth day, let it be a consciousness-raising effort rather than an abstract reading of his texts.
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The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.