Karl Marx was born in the German town of Tiers on 5 May 1818. The body of ideas and method of critique to understand, interpret and change history which he developed in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, his lifelong comrade, remain the most consistently revolutionary for the working-class. Indeed, while time and again ideologues of the bosses’ class have mocked Marxism, they have equally had no choice, to concede that “Marx was right”, even if grudgingly.
And now more than ever working-class and youth activists must arm themselves with the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx. Capitalism proclaimed there was no alternative to its neoliberal agenda after the collapse of the Soviet Empire three decades ago. The fall of Stalinist Russia we were told, demonstrated that socialism cannot work, and Marx was wrong.
Marx however was never one to take study and struggle so lightly as to believe that “alternatives” for the future were put down in books all complete from his or any one’s head. The point of departure of his entire life’s work was real life as it exists; pulsating with contradictions, open-ended with its possibilities for the future, as it emerges from its historically established contexts.
The young Marx lived through the first industrial revolution which started at the end of the eighteenth century. He was the third of nine children in a middle-class family. His father, Heinrich Marx was a liberal lawyer interested in philosophers of the enlightenment period like Immanuel Kant and Voltaire.
He educated Karl at home until he was twelve years old and went to high school. When Karl Marx was seventeen, he went to the University of Bonn. His father wanted him to study law there, but Marx was more interested in philosophy and literature. He eventually graduated with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Jena, just before he clocked twenty-three years.
Beyond his academic studies in economics, jurisprudence and philosophy, Karl Marx was very involved as an activist in the political circles of radical thinkers on campus influenced by the ideas of GWF Hegel. They were known as the Young Hegelians.
Blocked from pursuing a career as an academic due to his radical ideas, Karl Marx became a journalist with the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News). The paper was banned in 1843 after two years of heavy censorship, anyway.
Karl Marx would be a contributor to several newspapers across Europe and the United States over the following forty years. One of these was Vorwärts! An uncensored German newspaper published in Paris, and which was associated with the League of the Just, an international socialist organisation of German immigrants in the European labour movement.
It was this League which was later reorganised as the Communist League which commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write the Communist Manifesto, published in February 1848 as revolutions broke out across Europe. This pamphlet is one of the most influential texts ever written. It is the most succinct summary of Marxism.
It could also be considered as the first major step of Karl Marx and Engels, in developing Marxism as a full-blown guide to action, with its three integrated sources and components as a body of theory. In 1913, Lenin identified these as: classical German philosophy, classical English political economy and French utopian socialism.
Marx started off as a philosopher. Standing on the shoulders of Hegel, he developed a materialist conception with the philosophical method of dialectics. Essentially, this method, often described as dialectical materialism grasps reality as a totality which can be understood in the dynamic relations between its different parts.
He applied the dialectical method from Hegelian philosophy to political economy – the “anatomy” of modern industrial society – to provide a rigorous understanding of the laws of development of capitalism. England was the cradle of capitalism, where the industrial revolution shattered the fetters of pre-capitalist economy. Marx spent a considerable part of his life in London where he went through tonnes of documents to write Capital a critique of political economy.
While inspired by the fervent politics of French socialists, he critiqued utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon, fine gentlemen who subjectively believed socialism would be brought to be by the goodwill of kind industrialists or the state. On the contrary, he showed that socialism will come about only through class struggle, as capitalism developed the productive capacities of humankind in leaps and bounds, leading to workers winning political power.
With this democratic power from below, working-class people could then abolish the basis for class division, exploitation and oppression. Understanding that the emancipation of the working-class must be an act of self-emancipation is thus a central element of revolutionary Marxism.
As with many a great thinker, Marx lived to witness many disciples claiming allegiance to his ideas, but lacking the soul of his politics. In response to such people, he is once reported to have said “all I know is that I am not a Marxist”.
Seventeen years into the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution both seemed to validate and to some confound Marx’s theory. Socialist revolution had indeed occurred, but in an economically backward country. Anyway, this historical development saw to a diverse array of Marxisms emerging. Many of these lost the soul of socialism from below which is at the heart of Marx’s Marxism and sought to build socialism from above, either through parliament or the muzzle of the gun.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire was for capitalist ideologues an opportunity to cheer at the supposed irrelevance of Marxism. But, capitalism has continued to fail to work, except for a few. Social inequality, political instability, climate change and disillusionment have deepened over the last thirty years.
Across the world, millions of workers and youth now want to better understand what socialism is and how to fight for a better world. For these, Karl Marx’s revolutionary ideas and methods are as essential today as they were in the nineteenth century. Indeed, they are even more important now than then.
Karl Marx grasped the spirit of capitalist development as an important but transient moment in the forward march of human history, whilst capitalism was at its infancy. The genius of Marx was confirmed at the beginning of the century when he was voted the world’s greatest thinker of the last millennium in a poll conducted by the BBC.
But, he was not merely a philosopher. He was first and foremost a revolutionary whose theory is a guide to action. As we mark the bicentenary of his birth, we as workers and youth activists must take up the gauntlet of struggle for socialist revolution in our lifetime, with renewed vigour; guided by the words inscribed on his grave: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
by Baba AYE