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Fighting with Pinpricks: Marx lives!

Published: March 14, 2008
Section: Opinions


On this day 125 years ago Karl Marx died of bronchitis and pleurisy. His writings on philosophy, politics, and economics are among the most influential and controversial of all time. Three European governments bestowed upon him the greatest honor possible for a thinker: they expelled him from their borders as at threat to the social order. He died in London, but as befits one of history’s greatest critics of nationalism, he hadn’t held citizenship in any state since the 1840s.

Marx’s intriguing and contradictory personality has often been overshadowed by arguments over his politics. His detachers and his supporters alike often overlook the humor—at once erudite and ironical—which permeates his work. The less said about his tender but amateurish love poetry the better; however, we really lose something when we forget that he was quite the playful vandal. He was certainly not without vices; he chain smoked, and were he around today, he’d probably be called an alcoholic. Despite a few wealthy benefactors, Marx lived most of his life in squalor. His furniture was so filthy that a Prussian police spy wrote of his London apartment “if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.”

Marx’s ideas first fell out of fashion after the failed revolutions of 1848 only months after the Communist Manifesto appeared. They’ve gone in and out of style ever since; most recently after the fall of the Soviet Union when many declared that Marx’s musings on class struggle and revolution hopelessly outdated.

What strikes me, however, is how forward thinking Marx was, and how much truer his ideas are now than when conceived of them. He wrote for instance that the bourgeoisie “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production.” When he composed this line in 1848, England had the only advanced industrial economy on earth. France, Germany, and the US were emerging as such, but the vast majority of the planet was not operated along capitalist lines. On the other hand, the great buzzword of the post-Cold War era in which Marx was not supposed to matter is “globalization,” a word which sums up Marx’s thesis fairly well.

His concept of alienation also rings true to contemporary ears. Marx thought that the modern workplace—and in fact the nature of work itself under a capitalist regime—produced in the worker a powerful sense of estrangement from her co-workers, from nature, from her society, and from the very essence of herself. Having spent considerable time in high school pretending to smile while rich people argued with me about the price of okra, I can say that alienation is as good a description of what I felt as it was for a Silesian weaver in the mid-19th century.

Anyone who watches television or reads magazines probably notices something that Marx called commodity fetishism. Every time I see commercial advertising shoes sewn in sweatshops which promise to give me superhuman athletic abilities, I am reminded of Marx who said that the market mechanism of exchange obscured the exploitative social relationships inherent in capitalist production. Because of this, commodities in our culture seem to take on new and fantastic characteristics which are normally reserved for humans and not objects.

And yet, it is impossible to talk about Marx without talking about proletarian revolution. Whatever use his concepts have to us today—I think a great deal, others disagree—he will ultimately be judged on whether or not the great liberation of humanity he predicted will ever come about. The first modern workers revolution in Paris in 1871 was brutally crushed by Prussian and French forces. The Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries of the 20th century were able to defeat aristocracies, fascist regimes, and colonialism, but they were unable to create a better society. Instead they often killed their own people by the millions.

So is Marx dead? Yes. His long decayed remains lie in Highgate Cemetery not far from the social Darwinist Herbert Spenser and the Sci-Fi writer Douglas Adams. We shouldn’t forget, however, that in this country and others real wages are falling. The high paying jobs of the post-war era are disappearing. In the third world workers are increasingly introduced to global capitalism via low paying and dangerous jobs which rob them of dignity and human rights. Global economic crisis looms. In short, a spectre is haunting Europe and the rest of the world. Will the revolution triumph? I don’t know. I do know that Marx is coming back, and he’ll have a starring role in the next fifty years of history’s great stage play. Whether or not that play is a tragedy remains to be seen.