200 years and countingMarxism as a philosophical challenge to capitalism is still relevant, even as communism as a system of governance may have failed
Karl Marx’s 200th birth anniversary is being marked the world over, both by celebrants and protestors. China has made and installed a bronze statue of Marx in his birth town of Trier, which used to be a part of the Kingdom of Prussia 200 years ago but now is in Germany. Some have protested the installation, but the Mayor of the town wanted the town to be a tourist destination. And what better publicity than to project the town as the birthplace of Marx? Xi Jinping, the donor of the statue to Marx’s birth town, in Beijing hailed Marx as “the greatest thinker in history” amid much fanfare.
Indeed, hate him or love him, but you have to acknowledge Marx as one of a few leading figures of human history, such as Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha. I hesitate to include Mahatma Gandhi because unlike the others, Gandhi doesn’t yet have an organised and global mass of followers.
How it began
I hadn’t heard of Marx until I got to college on the banks of the Ganges in India. I had certainly heard of the communists from a boy who had lived in Dharan for a few years after his primary education in our village school, who had returned home when his father admitted him to the same school that I had started going to—across the border in India. All the way to the school, a full day’s walk, he would dramatize for me the hero-villain fights in the Hindi films he had seen or the gang fights between Congress and Communist students from high school to college in the foothill town where he had lived. To my 13-year-old mind, Communist boys appeared as goondas, much like the Congress ones. As for Hindi films, I hadn’t seen any until then, and I only imagined how these might be.
In college, on the banks of the holy river, one stormy night I heard in my hostel that one of the two Naxalite brothers, the engineer one (the other brother was a medical student), who also happened to be the son of my college professor Radha Kant Chaudhary, had broken out of jail and fled and hid in a tree. He had subsequently been found and shot down by the police. The youngest of the three brothers was my classmate and studied history. What surprised me even more was what the professor said about the death of his son. He said that he would be happy if even his other two boys go the same way. The father’s unheard of words and the dramatic, violent death of the engineering student son (you need to understand that engineering and medical were the pinnacle of education—then as it is now) motivated me to learn about Naxalism and its source ideology Marxism. Soon after I got hold of Rahul Sankrityayan’s Hindi book, Samyabad hi Kyon? (Why Communism?) .
Discovering Marx for the first time made me feel like a human being with equal rights like everyone else. To be sure, I had read a few couplet’s of Kabir’s Sakhi that wittily ridiculed the hypocrisies of orthodox Hindu and Muslim societies and their preceptors but Marx gave me a global picture of society and the place of humans in it as determined by economic forces of capital and labour rather than social and religious forces of caste or race. The breath of fresh air I gained made me an admirer of Marx. However, I didn’t read anything original by Marx, and even if I had studied I would probably have not understood his deep concepts of alienation of labour, commodification, Marxist dialectic, etc., on my own. And the college classroom was of little help because class lectures never examined any original texts by thinkers but the lecturers lectured about historical events and their causes and consequences.
Later, as a college teacher in Kathmandu, I joined the Progressive group of the college teachers association. Even then, I didn’t read Marx’s original texts, and the college students I saw who were affiliated to the underground communist parties revelled more in peer/comrade handshakes than in any Marxist intellectual debates. That’s why, in most societies, most people who identify with Marxism or Communism seldom do so as a result of deep engagement with Marx’s texts and concepts. Only a handful of catch phrases, such as the exploited or exploiter at the individual level and imperialism and expansionism as big picture concepts make them join the group. So, Marxism, like Hinduism, could be very simple and even vulgar for the simple minded or very complex and highly philosophical, encompassing many disciplines for the intellectually sophisticated. Similarly, Marxist ideas could be incredibly liberating for an open-mined oppressed, and equally confining for a close-minded orthodox.
It was only in graduate school in the United States under the influence of a well-known Marxist thinker that I read Marx’s original texts and had discussion about them in an open-minded intellectual environment of discussion and debate. I, however, soon realised while reading African American writers, such as Richard Wright, that Marxism could easily become a tool of racial constraint if differences of racial or caste or gender and other identities are not included as factors that produce class. That’s why, you see in South Asia, whether in Bengal or Kerala in India or in Nepal, Communist parties have reproduced caste hierarchies. In all three places where communist parties have been prominent, mostly upper caste men have dominated the parties since inception.
Nonetheless, even if we say, and there is a solid ground to say it, that communism as a system of state governance has failed on both counts—political freedom and economic prosperity—Marxism as a critique of capitalism remains as vital as ever—the only comprehensive system, in fact, that has helped understand and restrain the ever expanding, enormously powerful monster we call capitalism. Otherwise, why couldn’t even the prominent economists of both universities and banks predict the downturn of 2008? So, communism may be dead but long live Marxism as a philosophical thought capable of transforming society, helping understand and restraining capitalism and giving the oppressed a readily available tool for dignity and justice. Therefore, both celebrations and protests are fitting tribute to Marx on his 200th birth anniversary.