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A Praise for Marx

by Wednesday, May. 02, 2012 at 3:49 AM

Solidarity, social justice and sharing open doors while deregulation and trickle-down mythologty lead to exploding inequality and generalized insecurity. Karl Marx asked why capitalism cannot solve poverty, unemployment and exploitation.


B y

] This article published 3/8/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet. Karl Marx’ ideas are as burning as ever, the British literary theoretician Terry Eagleton says. His new book is “Why Marx is Right” has appeared in German.]

Praising Marx may seem as perverse as offering a good word for a murderer. Weren’t Marx’ ideas responsible for tyranny, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophes and the loss of freedom for millions of people?

Wasn’t one of his devoted pupils a paranoid farmer from Georgia with the name Stalin and another a brutal Chinese dictator whose hands were stained with the blood of around 30 million people?


The truth is Marx doesn’t bear responsibility for the monstrous oppression in the communist world than Jesus bears for the Inquisition. First of all Marx rejected the notion that socialism could be built in pitifully poor, chronically backward societies like Russia or China. The attempt had to end that he called the “generalized shortage” where everyone suffered want and not only the poor. This would mean a reform of the whole filthy business.

Marxism is a theory about how wealthy capitalist countries can use their enormous resources so all people gain justice e and prosperity. It is not a problem for nations to catapult into the modern age that lack material resources, , a living culture of public life, a democratic tradition, a high state of technical development, liberal traditions of the Enlightenment and a well-trained and educated workforce.


Marx wanted justice and prosperity to prevail even in pitiable countries. With anger and great knowledge, he wrote about several British colonies like Ireland and India. The political movement that his work ignited enabled small nations to dismiss their imperialist rulers more than any other political current. But Marx was not so mad to believe that socialism cou9ld be built in such countries with the aid of more developed countries.

This meant that the simple people in these developed states snatching the means of production from their rulers and putting them in service of the wretched of the earth. If that would have happened in the Ireland of the 19th century, there would not have been a famine that cost the lives of a million people and forced another two- to three million to flee all over the world.


In a certain sense, Marx’ work is based on a number of embarrassing questions: how is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than ever in humanity’s history and nevertheless seems unable to poverty, hunger, exploitation and inequality? Through what mechanisms does the prosperity of a minority seem to produce a hard undignified life for the majority? Why does private prosperity seem to go hand in hand with public poverty?

Is it actually as kindhearted liberal reformers promise – that we simply have not yet removed this last remnant of poverty but intend to do this? Or is it more plausible to assume that producing shortage and inequality is somehow part of the nature of capitalism as Charlie Sheen is intent on headlines?


Marx was the first theoretician who raised these questions. This destitute Jewish immigrant was a man who once remarked that no one aside from him had written so much about money and had so little of it himself. He gave us a language with which we can understand the system as a whole under which we live. Its contradictions were analyzed, its inner dynamic revealed, its historical origins investigated and its possible decline described.

At no moment did Marx simply regard capitalism as something evil like admiration for Sarah Palin or children blowing tobacco smoke in faces. Rather he was full of praise for the class that created him and looked at his critics and his followers through this fact. No other social system, he wrote, has proven so revolutionary. In only a few centuries, the capitalist middle classes had removed every trace of their feudal adversary from the world.

They had heaped up cultural and material riches, invented human rights, freed slaves, overthrew dictators, destroyed empires, fought for human freedom even at the cost of their own lives and laid the foundations for a true global civilization. No document, not even the Wall Street Journal, deserves such effusive praise as the Communist Manifesto for this enormous historical achievement.


That was only one part of the story. Some see the history of the modern age as an impressive progress and others as a long drawn out nightmare. Marx saw it in his usual dialectical ambivalence as both. Every advance of civilization went along with new possibilities for barbarism. The great watchwords of the revolution of the middle class – liberty, equality and fraternity – served as his leit-motifs. He raised the simple question why these ideas could never be made concrete without violence, poverty and exploitation.

Capitalism has developed human powers and possibilities beyond every known measure. But it has not used these possibilities to liberate people from fruitless labor. The majority must slave away more grievously than ever before. The richest civilizations of the earth must earn their bread in the sweat of their brow like their ancestors in the Stone Age.


This was not caused by natural scarcity. Rather it lay in the uniquely contradictory way in which the capitalist system produced its prosperity. Equality for some meant inequality for others and the freedom for some brought oppression and unhappiness for others.

The greed of the system for power and profit changed foreign nations into enslaved colonies and people into playthings of economic powers completely removed from their control. Capitalism marched over the planet with destruction of the environment, million-fold hunger and horrifying wars.


Nearly burning with rage, some of Marx’ critics refer to the mass murders in communist Russia and China. They usually do not remember the genocidal crimes of capitalism with the same outrage and the famines in Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century in which untold millions perished, the chaos of the First World War in which the imperialist states massacred their workers in the battle for global resources and the atrocities of fascism and of a regime on which capitalism gladly turned when it stood with its back to the wall. Without the casualties of the Soviet Union and others, the Nazi regime would still be in power.

Marxists warned of the dangers that started from fascism when politicians of the so-called free world debated whether Hitler was really such a bad fellow as it was said. Nearly all followers of Marx today condemn the atrocities of Stalin and Mao while many non-Marxists passionately defend the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima.


Most modern capitalist nations are products of a history of genocides, violence and the extermination of population groups that are not second in anything in their horror to the crimes of communism. Capitalism was also formed in blood and tears. Marx experienced this as an eyewitness. The system has only existed for a long while since most of us know nothing about this.

The selectivity of political memory takes novel forms. For example, take September 11, the first one. I mean the September 11 that occurred almost 30 years before the collapse of the World Trade Center when the US helped violently overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and replaced him with a terrible dictator who murdered far more people than were killed on that disastrous day in New York and Washington. How many people in the western world know that? How often is that reported on television?


Marx was not a dream utopian. He began his career in a sharp conflict with the dreamy utopians surrounding him. He had as little interest in a perfect society as the character played by Clint Eastwood and never used such absurd terms. He did not believe that real persons can surpass the archangel Gabriel in kindliness.

Marx believed improving the world is very possible. In that he was a realist, not an idealist. The moral ostriches of this world who stick their heads deep in the sand deny that any radical change is possible. They act as though there will be good times, bad times and colored toothpaste in the year 4000. The whole history of humanity proves the opposite.


Radical change does not necessarily mean an improvement. The only form of socialism that we will ever experience may be a socialism forced on people when they crawl out of their protective shelter after a nuclear war or an environmental disaster. Marx spoke very bitterly about the possibility of the “common extinction” of all actors. Whoever witnessed the atrocity of early capitalism in England could hardly nurse any illusion about his fellow human beings. He thought there were more than enough resources to solve most of our natural problems just as there was more than enough food in Great Britain in 1840 to feed Ireland’s starving population.

How we organize our production is crucial. Marx did not give us any blueprint for how we should pursue things differently. He said impressively little about the future. The only picture of the future is the failure of the present. Marx was not a prophet who gazed into a crystal ball. He was a prophet in the original Biblical sense, someone who warns us that we must leave our path of injustice to avert an extremely dysfunctional future or there will not even be a future any more.


Thus socialism does not need any wondrous change of human nature. In the late Middle Ages, some defenders of feudalism preached that capitalism would never function because it ran against human nature. Some capitalists argue the same today about socialism. Somewhere in the Amazon basin there is a tribe convinced that no social system can survive in which someone can marry the wife of his deceased brother. We all tend to absolutize our own living conditions.

In soci8alism, there will be rivalries, envy, aggressions, claims of ownership, mania of rule and competition. The world will have its little tyrants, deceivers, tormented spirits, bandwagon riders and occasional psychopaths. However rivalry, aggressions and competition are denied or repressed where bankers complain their bonuses are reduced a few million while millions of others in the world must fight for their survival with less than two dollars a day.


Marx was a deeply moral thinker. In the Communist Manifesto, he spoke of a world in which the free development of the individual is the condition for the free development of all people. This ideal can serve us as a leit-motif even if we can never reach it completely. The formulation is important. As a good humanist of Romanticism, Marx believed in the uniqueness of the individual. This idea pervades his whole work. He had a passion for the material and unique and an explicit aversion against abstract conceptions, as necessary as these occasionally are.

In its core, his so-called materialism turned around the human body. Again and again he spoke of the just society in which every man and every woman can live out and convert their special powers and abilities in their special way. His moral goal was amiable self-realization. In that he agreed with his great intellectual predecessor Aristotle that moral teaching explains how a person can thrive most completely and most pleasurably though not first of all around laws (as fatally assumed in the modern age), legal and moral duties and responsibilities.


To what extent is this moral goal distinguished from liberal individualism? The distinction is that Marx assumes people must find the true fulfillment of their being in and through others. Each and every one cannot do his own thing isolated from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the foundation of one’s own self-realization as we offer that foundation for him or her. This is known as love on the interpersonal plane. On the political plane, it is called socialism.

For Marx, socialism meant the arrangement of institutions that grant the greatest possible developmental possibilities for this mutuality. Think of the distinction between a capitalist enterprise in which the majority work for the advantage of a few and a socialist cooperative in which one’s participation in the project benefits the well-being of everyone and vice versa. This is not a question of moralist self-sacrifice. Mutual benefit is built into the structure of the institution.


Marx’ goal was freely disposable time, not hard work. The best reason to be a socialist – apart from the fact of unnerving people whom one may not like – is that one abhors the pressure to work. Marx found that capitalism had developed the productive forces so far that liberation of the majority of people from the most degrading forms of labor was possible under different social conditions.

What should we do? We should do whatever we want. If we resolve like the great Irish socialist Oscar Wilde to lounge about all day in red robes, sip bourbon and read to one another a page from Homer, we should do that. These creative activities should be open to everyone. We should not tolerate a situation any more in which a minority has free time because a majority slaves away.


In other words, what ultimately interested Marx was the intellectual, not the material. The material conditions must be changed to free us from the tyranny of economic life. Marx was incredibly well-read, rejoiced in art, culture and stimulating entertainment, enjoyed humor and lively pleasure. Once he was chased by a policeman because he broke a street lantern in the course of a drinking bout.

He was manifestly an atheist but one need not be religious to have a spiritual nerve. He was one of the great Jewish heretics and his work is full of the great themes of Judaism, justice, emancipation, the Day of Reckoning, the kingdom of freedom and surplus and redemption of the poor.


The people who decry revolutions usually say they are against certain revolutions and not against others. Do Americans who are against revolutions object so much against the American Revolution than against the revolution in Cuba? Why were the most recent revolutions in Egypt and Libya put down and those who chased out the colonial power in Africa and Asia?

We are ourselves products of revolutionary rebellions in the past. Some reform processes were far bloodier than the acts of revolutions. There are soft and violent revolutions. The Bolshevik revolution was remarkably bloodless. The Soviet Union that emerged broke down 70 years later, nearly without any shed blood.


Some Marx critics reject a society ruled by the state. They have that in common with him. He abhorred the political state just as passionately as the FDP but for less onservative reasons.

Was Marx a Victorian patriarch?, feminists ask. Of course. However, as some non-Marxist researchers emphasize, men from the socialist and communist movements regarded the equal rights of women as crucial for other forms of political liberation up to the new revival of the women’s movement in the 1980s.

The word proletariat originally meant persons in ancient societies who were too poor to give any more to the state than the fruits of their bosom. “Prol” originally meant the up-and-coming generation. Today typical proletarians are women in sweatshops and in the small farms of the third world.


The same is true for ethnic questions. In the 1920s and 1930s, the only men and women who stood up for equal rights of the races were communists. Many anti-colonial movements were influenced by Marxism. The arch conservative theoretician Ludwig von Mises described socialism as “the most powerful reform movement that history has ever seen, the first ideological trend supported by people of all races, nations, religions and cultures and not limited to one part of humanity.”

Marx, historically better girded than von Mises, reminded him of Christianity but that hardly diminishes von Mises’ assessment. In relation to the environmental problematic, Marx anticipated many of the Green’s themes today. Association with nature and the necessity of viewing nature as an ally and not as an enemy was one of his central themes.


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