Karl Marx, the revenant

He died on March 14, 1883, poor and obscure. But he bequeathed a trove of thoughts with which to know and change the world, and by which the world would know his name through the ages. Soon enough, people, events, and chance conspired to take heed. The first few decades after Marx’s death saw his name lending itself to an eponymous doctrine moving parties and people and shaking nations. In October 1917, it started shaking the world as well.

The tremors spread fast and wide. A few decades into the centenary of his death, half of humanity was living under regimes that came to rule under the banner of Marxism. “Not since Jesus Christ,” says one Marx’s biographer, “has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion.”

The comparison fits. Marxism also came in currents, both branching and cross-cutting. Over the years, orthodoxy had turned dominant ones into dogmas, demanding more faith than reason (despite claims to science) and the use of Inquisitional means against heresies.

With deification came discipleship. The disciples read Marx and asserted their claim to truth on account of that. Otherwise, they read into Marx. Each one of them, without exception, claimed they stood in the direct line of descent from Marx. But the last one standing is he who knew that truth succumbs to wile.

Marx has no equal among the big thinkers of his time and beyond in being misread or misrepresented, not without disastrous consequences. He was said to write good prose in his native language, and always kept his reader assiduously in mind. But he wrote more manuscripts than he could publish in his lifetime. These are so raw that they leave much to rigorous Marxian scholarship for systematization, and to the party ideologue for “official” interpretation. The eminent British historian Eric Hobsbawm believes that,“Our judgment of twentieth century Marxism is not based on the thinking of Marx himself, but on posthumous interpretations or revisions of his writing.”

It’s not bad per se, not until they appear as dogmas imposed upon all others.

The October 1917 revolution in Russia gave Marxism its first vindication, in the way its leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, read it and read into it. He died just more than six years later, too soon to test the fullness of his genius. He died a hero, nonetheless. And he left a huge body of work that official thinking had hailed as the “expression of Marxism at its highest.”

Leninism. It read science into Marxism, conceived by Lenin as one with the power to view the world in its natural and social forms: it “is omnipotent because it is true;” “it is complete and harmonious;” it gives “men an integral world conception.” Stalin took power, oversaw the “beatification” of Lenin, and lived long enough to give “Gulag” the terrifying feel of Hitler’s “Auschwitz.” Upon him fell the task of spreading the word and guarding its integrity, as keeper of the flame.

Marxism-Leninism radiated beyond Russia into the developed West, into the undeveloped East, following a “trajectory of systematization and vulgarization” marked by rigidity, more in the form of manuals, handbooks, anthologies, than reproduced writing of Marx himself. A widely distributed booklet by Stalin upheld the “world outlook” of communist parties, “dialectical materialism” — with which to explain anything and everything in this world.

It might as well be. But Marxian scholarship up to now has yet to find an indication that this was indeed the grand role Marx intended his doctrine to take. One scholar from Harvard concluded that “dialectical materialism” was known neither to Marx nor to his closest colleague, Friedrich Engels. “It was,” instead, in the words of philosophy’s rock star, Slavoj Zizek, “an institution of power legitimation to be enacted ritualistically, and, as such, to be located in the thick cobweb of power relations.”

Marx’s doctrine reached Philippine shores in 1920 in this canonical form, and went through a rugged journey in the long years that followed up to now.

Soviet socialism showed promise through the first decades, then floundered on, and ended disastrously before the close of the last century. No gesture by the protesting citizens cast their feelings more symbolically — rightly or wrongly — than the toppling of the ubiquitous statues of Lenin and Stalin. They pronounced Leninism dead. And Marx? His statue was spared, whatever that meant. The fact is there’s hardly any reason to indict him for the debacle. The Bolsheviks, finding so little to get from Marx, read into him the “extremist 100% state-planned command economy” that defined the Soviet model and didn’t work.

The collapse had nevertheless seen Marx’s presence fading out from the public scene, prompting pundits to guess it must be heading into perpetual oblivion. “Marx, that dead dog!” screamed the unfriendly ones. But not yet. Marx endures through the years because of one quality, relevance.

Who would sit as the credible judge of that? Try George Soros corroborating Marx’s theory of capitalist crises: The “capitalist system by itself shows no tendency toward equilibrium. [Capitalists] would continue to accumulate capital until the situation became unbalanced. Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago, better in some ways than the equilibrium theory of classical economics.”

The market fundamentalist would rather let the market be the judge. Some relevance indicators: The New Yorker was the first publication to announce the “return” of Marx in its issue of October 1997, leaving this final line: “His books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.” Next, BBC crowned him “the greatest thinker of the millennium.” In 2004, a German national TV station (ZDF) polled half-a-million of its viewers — who voted Marx as the top most German personality in the category of “contemporary relevance.” And then there was the 2005 BBC Radio 4 poll that found him “the philosopher most admired by listeners.”

This revenant returns to haunt.

Mario M. Galang is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms and a development and governance specialist. He is one of only a few Filipinos who have assiduously studied Karl Marx.

This article was first posted on BusinessWorld last March 13, 2016.
No comments yet.