History & Theory Topics

Karl Marx’s 200th Birth Anniversary

By Lal Khan

May 5th marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. This birthday is being celebrated at a time when his predictions and perspective are being borne out by the events erupting across the world. Its an historical paradox that what has occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalist degeneration of the Chinese revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall has served to underline Marx’s prescience. The veracity of his conviction that capitalism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction have been acknowledged even by some of those who are vexed with his ideas.

Capitalism’s relentless crisis has once again propelled the relevance of Marx’s ideas and his strategy of class struggle for the emancipation of the humanity into the limelight of world’s politics. The number of articles being written, his works being republished and the discussions around his ideas amongst the intelligentsia and the media at the time of the second centenary of his birth are unprecedented in recent times. These are perhaps being more widely conversed than even during the so-called ‘socialist block’s’ existence.

Karl Marx and Engels at the 1872 Hague Congress.

After his death, ‘communist’ revolutions that occurred, apart from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, were not in accordance and in unison with Marx’s principles and methodology. Nevertheless these were in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves Marxist, Socialist or Communist. Its cynical to blame Marx for the distorted way these revolutions took shape and their outcomes, sometimes vicious totalitarian states, in the twentieth century.

On 14th March 1883 Marx died, at the age of sixty-four. Marx remained obscured from the wider world horizon during his lifetime. There were only eleven people present at his funeral. Apart from his loyal friend and lifelong comrade, Friedrich Engels few would have envisaged how influential he would become for the generations to come. At the funeral Engels speech summed up Marx’s life and works with its impacts on the future of humanity’s struggle for liberation.

Engels solemnly spoke,

“Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, tenacity and a success such as few could rival. His writings… work in organisations in Paris, Brussels and London, and finally, crowning all, the formation of the great International Working Men’s Association – this was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else. And, consequently, Marx was the best-hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers … and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy. His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.”

Twenty eight years later, a Russian Marxist, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin one of the main speakers at another funeral, that of Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband Paul Lafarge in Paris in 1911, declared, that “the ideas of Laura’s father would be triumphantly realised sooner than anyone guessed”.

It s is also an indubitable fact that without the victorious 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Marx probably would have remained in obscurity like many other nineteenth-century philosophers, sociologists, economists, and political theoreticians. Marx’s influence is again on the rise with the impending crisis of world capitalism. In a survey conducted by the BBC at the turn of the twentieth century Marx was voted as the most influential personality of the last millennium.

Marx was born in 1815 in the small German city of Trier. His father wanted him to become a lawyer but Marx went on to study philosophy. He studied at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, in Berlin.

Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen

Marx fell in love with and got engaged to Jenny von Westphalia, also from Trier. He was eighteen and she was twenty-two. Jenny was exceptionally beautiful and devoted to him. Marx wrote passionate love poetry for her. In his personal life Marx was modest and gracious. He was playful, joyous and affectionate when not marred by illness. He often made up stories for his three daughters, and enjoyed cheap cigars and red wine. His wife and daughters adored him. A Prussian government spy who visited Marx at his home in 1852 was surprised to find him “the gentlest and mildest of men.”

Marx was a passionate and a prolific writer. He wrote all night in clouds of tobacco smoke, books and papers piled around him. Marx and Engels wrote on so many issues and in such detail that these are spread in 54 large volumes that have been compiled till now. Some might still be missing from those collected works. When it came to issues of ideological principles he was uncompromising. He was a convincing speaker but had a lisp hence his oration was not that fluent and rarely addressed crowds. Due to his commitment and persistence on ideological principles Marx made many enemies of even his former friends and allies with his unforgiving and candid writing style.

Apart from a few small book advances, journalism was Marx’s only source of earned income. Although most of his writings were on Europe but his articles on the Indian subcontinent are perhaps the best analyses of the events taking place in the South Asian subcontinent at the time, in his columns between 1852 to 1862 for the New York Daily Tribune, the largest circulation newspaper in the world at the time. It was during this period that Marx wrote some of the best writings on British colonisation of India and the 1857 Great Revolt.

In a New York Daily Tribune article Marx wrote,

“Whatever English bourgeoisie is forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people. The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Indians themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

The Indians did fought back starting with a revolt in the Indian army and it very rapidly spread throughout the country. The British called it a mutiny and an isolated uprising but for Marx had called this ‘nothing short of an insurrection’, which was just part of a general anti-colonial liberation struggle of oppressed nations unfolding in the 1850s in nearly all of Asia. Marx was the first one to refute the lie that the Great Revolt of 1857 was a mere mutiny by soldiers and there was no involvement of broader sections of the society.

Marx went on to say that the uprising had brought together religions and communities.

“Mussulmans and Hindus renouncing their mutual antipathies have combined against their common masters; that disturbances beginning with the Hindus, have actually ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan emperor; that the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities.” One of Marx’s most celebrated sentences that summed up the perspectives of British colonialism was, “it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended but by the offender himself”.

Marx’s journalistic work at the New York Daily Tribune provided him with some regular income but this dried up soon, he was broke again. Engels supported him financially in most difficult of times. Most of his life Marx lived in deprivation and poverty. The author of “Capital” was most often financially short of ‘capital’ for his basic needs and for being able to continue to write.

Inspite of belonging to a well-off family Marx accepted poverty as the price of his political ideology and struggle. He would gladly have lived in a slum himself, but he didn’t want his family to suffer. Three of their children died young and a fourth was stillborn due to poverty and substandard living conditions.

Marx’s revolutionary ideas and struggle made him a serial exile. In 1843, he was kicked out of Cologne for his ‘subversive’ writings in a paper called Rheinische Zeitung. Marx escaped to Paris where his comradeship and personal friendship with Fredrick Engels blossomed. In 1845, Marx was expelled from France and had to move to Brussels.

In 1848 revolutions broke out across Europe. Marx and Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto” the iconic document that has transgressed epochs and generations and is still the most modern analysis of the system and society. In an introduction to its new edition republished on April 26 this year in London, Yanis Varoufakis, the former left wing Greek finance minister, described this iconic document in these words, “For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.”

In those stormy events of 1848 when the movement reached Brussels, Marx was accused of arming insurgents and evicted from Belgium. He returned to Paris. However on defeat of the1848 revolutions Marx commented, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. The “tragedy” was the fate of the French Revolution under Napoleon and the “farce” was the ‘election’ of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in December 1848, whom Marx considered as a mediocrity, to the Presidency of France. In 1849 Marx was forced into exile once again. He fled with his family to London and lived there for the rest of his life. In the Reading Room of the British Museum, he did the research for “Capital,” and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

During Marx’s life the Paris Commune of 1871 was the first and only successful proletarian revolution when workers took power in France. It was the first workers state in human history. However it was defeated and drenched in blood after just seventy days of proletarian rule. The elites of Germany and France, foes for millennia suddenly dropped their ages of acrimonies and joined forces to crush the revolution.

This resulted in the ebbing and decline of workers movement internationally. Marx was confronted with an arduous objective situation yet again. But Marx’s firm belief in the socialist future of mankind never mellowed or wavered. He remained committed and optimistic of the victory of revolutionary communism till his death in 1883. Shakespeare was one of Marx’s favourite poets. In his legendary play Hamlet, Shakespeare’s dialogue sums up Marx’s life and struggle in many respects: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?” Marx dared to fight against all odds and change the course of history. His ideas are still most relevant for the revolutionaries across the planet to accomplish the historic task—the emancipation of the human race.