On your Marx: 200 years old, but still not his­tory

With grow­ing in­equal­ity in Rus­sia, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Marx’s the­o­ries are resur­fac­ing. In his in­stal­la­tion speech last week, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin em­pha­sised the pri­or­ity to im­prove the eco­nomic con­di­tions of all the peo­ple. If the Rus­sian econom

The Sunday Guardian - - Covert - REUTERS

If y o u had been walk­ing past an at­trac­tive three­story Baroque town­house at 664 Bruken­gasse, Trier in Prus­sia (now Ger­many) 200 years ago, you might have heard the cry of a new-born baby. Named Karl, the son of Hein­rich and Hen­ri­etta Marx, this baby grew up to be­come the most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial philoso­pher of the next two cen­turies, per­haps ever. At the time, his par­ents would have been as­ton­ished to learn that on the bi­cen­te­nary of his birth, 5 May, a gi­ant three­tonne statue of their son, the gift of com­mu­nist China, would be unveiled to com­mem­o­rate the oc­ca­sion, just one of 600 events planned by the city. The au­thor of the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo and Das Kap­i­tal, Karl Marx has al­ways di­vided opin­ion. Some hail him as a vi­sion­ary scholar who fore­told the ills of the mar­ket econ­omy, oth­ers re­vile him for in­spir­ing to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes around the world. Many con­sider that his the­o­ries, de­vel­oped as the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion gath­ered pace in the 19th cen­tury, find res­o­nance to­day as so­ci­eties once again see so­cial and po­lit­i­cal up­heaval.

It might sur­prise you that in a coun­try which adopted his the­o­ries for more than 70 years, and one in which there are 1,390 streets bear­ing his name, the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties chose not to mark the bi­cen­te­nary oc­ca­sion at all. “The of­fi­cial stance is that his rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas brought mis­for­tune to the Rus­sian peo­ple”, said Lev Gud­kov, direc­tor of the re­spected in­de­pen­dent poll­ster com­pany Le­vada Cen­tre; “Rus­sians have all but for­got­ten him”. Ac­cord­ing to Gud­kov, in 1989, some 35% of Rus­sians thought of Marx as one of the top 10 great­est peo­ple to have lived. By the end of 1991 af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union, only 8% did. Since 2008 the num­ber has flat­lined at just 3%.

Some com­men­ta­tors are pos­i­tively vit­ri­olic against Marx. “The ex­tra­or­di­nary thing about Marx­ism”, wrote the UK MEP Daniel Han­nanin in the Daily Tele­graph on the day of the bi­cen­te­nary, “is not the de­struc­tive­ness, though with 100 mil­lion deaths on its ac­count it is by far the most lethal ide­ol­ogy ever de­vised. No, the truly ex­tra­or­di­nary thing is, de­spite that mon­strous record, it re­mains in­tel­lec­tu­ally re­spectable.” The lat­ter was re­flected by the UK Fi­nan­cial Times, with its head­line “Why Karl Marx is more rel­e­vant than ever”. Or the Econ­o­mist: “On his bi­cen­te­nary, Marx’s di­ag­no­sis of cap­i­tal­ism’s flaws is sur­pris­ingly rel­e­vant”. Or even the New York Times: “Happy birth­day, Karl Marx, you were right!”

It’s this di­chotomy be­tween the the­ory of Marx­ism and the at­tempts to put it into prac­tice which lies at the heart of the is­sue. Few would dis­agree with his anal­y­sis of the plight of work­ers in 19th cen­tury Bri­tain. The sheer mis­ery of the work­ing and do­mes­tic con­di­tions of the fac­tory work­ers, para­dox­i­cally some of whom worked for Fred­er­ick En­gels, who fi­nanced Marx through­out much of his life, were sim­ply ap­palling. Marx saw the work­ers be­ing ex­ploited sim- ply to make the fac­tory own­ers rich. His so­lu­tion was to put all the means of pro­duc­tion into com­mon own­er­ship so that ev­ery­one would ben­e­fit from their labour.

Great the­ory, but look what hap­pened when it was put into prac­tice. Some 40% of hu­man­ity who lived un­der Marx­ist regimes for much of the 20th cen­tury en­dured famines, gu­lags and party dic­ta­tor­ships. When I lived in Moscow, just be­fore the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I wit­nessed the end­less queues for bread or any­thing to feed the fam­ily. The rot­ting fruit and veg­eta­bles in the Cen­tral Mar­ket con­trasted with the cheek by jowl at­trac­tive fresh fruit on the em­bryo pri­vate stalls, re­cently per­mit­ted by Mikhail Gor­bachev as an ex­per­i­ment in cap­i­tal­ism. Un­for­tu­nately for most Rus­sians at the time, this was be­ing sold for hard cur­rency, which was well be­yond the reach of the vast ma­jor­ity of Rus­sians. The bizarre sight of com­pletely empty state shops, still fully staffed by bored shop as­sis­tants pol­ish­ing their nails, some­how epit­o­mised the fail­ure of Marx­ist com­mu­nism. I walked down the cen­tre of the huge state shop GUM on the edge of Red Square and noted the shoddy goods for sale and the de­cay­ing su­per­struc­ture.

A year ago I re­turned to GUM to wit­ness the ex­tra­or­di­nary trans­for­ma­tion in­side. Ev­ery big-name in­ter­na­tional la­bel was there in a daz­zling dis­play of wealth, sur­pass­ing even Har­rods in Lon­don’s mil­lion­aire Knights­bridge. No more could I buy any­thing I wanted; in fact I winced at hav­ing to pay $10 for a cof­fee. Around me were a few ul­tra­wealthy Rus­sian women and some gaw­ping tourists. The av­er­age Mus­covite could hardly af­ford to even look.

Sud­denly I be­gan to think about Marx and his views on the haves and the have not’s. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by Credit Suisse, Rus- sia is now the most un­equal of the world’s ma­jor economies, with 89% of the wealth owned by the coun­try’s rich­est 10%. Putin’s Rus­sia is not alone, of course, in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a grow­ing gap be­tween the su­per-wealthy and the or­di­nary cit­i­zen. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port in the New York Times, cur­rently the rich­est 1% in Trump’s Amer­ica now own more wealth than the bot­tom 90%. Re­cent tax cuts will of course make this di­vide even worse.

With this grow­ing in­equal­ity it’s not sur­pris­ing that Marx’s the­o­ries are resur­fac­ing. Sales of his books have soared world­wide, in­di­cat­ing a resur­gence since the world­wide eco­nomic cri­sis of 2008. In his in­stal­la­tion speech last week, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin em­pha­sised the pri­or­ity to im­prove the eco­nomic con­di­tions of all the peo­ple. If the Rus­sian econ­omy be­gins to splut­ter, how­ever, many be­lieve that Marx will make a come­back and be rel­e­vant again. It’s far too early to con­fine Marx­ism to the dust­bin of his­tory. John Dob­son worked in UK Prime Min­is­ter John Ma­jor’s Of­fice be­tween 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chair­man of the Ply­mouth Univer­sity of the Third Age.


Dec­o­ra­tions and gifts for Christ­mas and New Year hol­i­days are dis­played for sale at the State Depart­ment Store, GUM, in cen­tral Moscow, Rus­sia, on 28 Novem­ber 2017.

Chi­nese artist Wu Weis­han poses next to his 14 feet high bronze statue of Karl Marx, do­nated by China, to mark the 200th birth an­niver­sary of the Ger­man philoso­pher in his home­town Trier, in Ger­many, on 5 May 2018.

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