Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Marx after two centuries

This year sees the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx and draws attention to the German thinker’s continuing legacy, writes Walid Abdelnasser


Over recent months, many countries have witnessed activities including conferences, seminars, workshops,and the release of new publications all dedicated to celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of one of the most famous and influential thinkers in modern human history, Karl Marx.

There is much that could be said on such an occasion, but I will focus here on aspects of what could be called the legacy of Marx, or on what he has left to the world today.

One legacy of Marx is his theory of the necessity and inevitability of periodic and always escalating economic crises that face the capitalist system at the global level. Marx considered such crises to be an integral part of the nature of the capitalist system, and despite attempts by generations of right-wing critics to undermine the credibility of Marx’s theory of the periodic crises of capitalism and the progress achieved in scientific research, technology and R&D, Marx has been proven to be right on this point.

The latest example that has shown this to be true was the world financial crisis in 2008 and its negative ramifications. The world is still living with some of the consequences of this crisis, and it has not fully recovered from its implications. Such crises have also shown, as Marx predicted, that they have become more sophisticated with the development of capitalism and a broader range of linkages. They have had more serious and deeper negative impacts on the world economy, as well as on the national economies that make it up.

A second legacy of Marx’s thought is his theory of historical materialism, which deals with previous forms of human community leading to the capitalist stage of history. Marx’s theory of the history of humanity, attempting to interpret and explain it, has been supremely useful for historians and other commentators in understanding that past and making sense of it. It has also been more useful than his attempts at predicting the future stages that humanity will pass through until and after the fall of capitalism worldwide.

Marx’s view of the history of humanity has been so influential that it has even been used by thinkers belonging to camps clearly different from his own. One example is the late Iranian Islamic thinker Ali Shariati (1933-1977). However, the part of Marx’s theory that tries to predict the future has proven to be more political than scientific despite Marx’s insistence on the “scientific” nature of his predictions and his argument that their results logically derived from their premises.

Subsequent developments have not borne out Marx’s predictions, even as some Marxists still argue that these results have not been fulfilled due to the use of scientific and technological progress by capitalism in order to prolong its life and adjust to changing circumstances.

A third legacy that Marx has left to the world today is the influence his views have had on capitalism and the capitalist order in terms of what that order has borrowed or assimilated from them without necessarily acknowledging or recognising the contributions of Marxism, socialism or other progressive ideologies.

Capitalism has introduced social services and tried to meet people’s basic needs in many parts of the world, including in social security and pensions, health insurance, free education, cheap public transport, and subsidised housing for the lower and lower middle classes. Few of these things could have been imagined without Marx and the political tendencies his thought gave birth to, as well as the threat it posed to the capitalist order.

Capitalism’s fear of Marx made it try to adjust to rising waves of opposition over time, particularly from the working classes and others suffering socially and economically from the injustices brought by classical capitalism. This was in order to avoid its demise and to try to contain threats to its stability or continuity arising from the structural inequalities it had created and sustained over time. The responses mentioned above were always thus derived from socialist, Marxist or other progressive bodies of thought.

This article has shed light on only three of the many aspects of the impact of Marx’s thought on the world, some of which remain relevant today. For this reason, and on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth this year, it has not been surprising to see the publication of a mass of books reflecting the realisation that Marx and his ideas are by no means irrelevant to the 21st century.

That said, some of Marx’s analyses and predictions have proven not to be true and to have been motivated more by political considerations than scientific ones, despite the fact that Marxism has continued to hold the official name of “scientific socialism” in some circles.

The writer is a political analyst.

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