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Childress

Karl Marx: 200 Years On

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Last year marked the 200th birthday of Karl Marx who was born on the 5th of May 1818. The occasion was celebrated by the Financial Times, the Economist and the NY Times which published an article headlined 'Happy Birthday Karl Marx, you were right'. (1) The Chinese government financed a statue of the philosopher in his hometown of Trier, Germany. Will the originator of ‘scientific socialism’ continue to be a world-altering figure? Who was Karl Marx? Will his legacy endure?

THE MAN

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The father of Marx was a lawyer and a man of the Enlightenment who idolized Kant and Voltaire. But, as a Jew descended from a long line of Rabbis, calculating that his faith would hinder his legal career he converted the family to Christianity. Karl was baptized into the German Evangelical Church at the age of 6.

Young Marx was a hell raiser. During his student days in Bonn he seemed to spend most of his spare time getting drunk and fighting. In addition to an argumentative streak, he never shook off a lisp and that combined with a thick Trier accent made him a target. He eventually joined the radical Trier Tavern Club and habitually carried a pistol after club members were attacked by reactionary supporters of the monarchy. History records that he once fought a duel.

But Marx was an excellent student and financed by his father he matriculated from the University of Berlin with a Ph.D. in philosophy. After graduation he turned to journalism becoming the editor of the liberal Cologne Rheinische Zeitung. However his radical political views (perhaps influenced by his father) attracted the attention of the government and he fled to Paris where he met the polyglot Friedrich Engels (he spoke twenty languages). The friendship would endure for the rest of their lives; their collaboration was so intimate that their combined output has often been considered a single joint achievement. However, by all accounts Marx was the dominant partner.

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Jenny (wearing a cross) and Karl

While he may have been on the side of the proletariat in word, in love Marx stuck by capital. In 1842 he married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a high ranking noble and together they would have six children (three survived to adulthood). Loyal to the core, she travelled around Europe as her husband was evicted from one country after another. It appears Marx was a loving, gentle and indulgent father; his children remembered him as playful. But he was chronically unfaithful to Jenny; among other conquests he made an illegitimate child with their- erratically paid and overworked- housekeeper. He threatened her with silence.

If only Karl made capital instead of just writing about it.

 -A comment attributed to Marx’s mother

Marx was soon ousted from France and moving to Brussels he published his first significant work, The Poverty of Philosophy followed a year later by The Communist Manifesto, both co-authored with Engels. He then moved to Cologne and, expelled yet again, spent the rest of his life in London as a stateless individual; the British government refused him citizenship. Despite generous- if unpredictable- assistance from Engels, Marx and his large, sprawling family often found themselves in dire poverty, Marx was notoriously incapable of keeping accounts, and Jenny was a regular customer of the London pawnbrokers. At one point Jenny pawned his single pair of trousers preventing the philosopher from leaving their apartment.

Marx died penniless in 1883, only eleven people attended his funeral. His influence had been waning for a considerable time and it seemed his works were destined to the forgotten, dusty shelves of philosophy. But seven years later a young revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin read Das Kapital and declared himself a Marxist. Once Lenin and his cohorts seized power in Russia in 1917 the legend of Marx, the world-shaking philosopher, took off.

THE PHILOSOPHY

The writings of Marx form the theoretical basis of Communism, as well as many other forms of socialism. At the time of his death in 1883 none of his theories had been put into practice. However, in the following century several Marx-inspired governments were established; most significantly China and Russia- among others- based on his teachings. The actual conduct of the Soviets, Chinese, or other Marxist regimes was never rigidly controlled by the works of Marx which spoke of Hegelian dialectic and the surplus value of labor. Such abstractions seem to have had little effect on the day-to-day policies of their governments.

Once in power these regimes kept the world in turmoil; their wars and bloody purges have caused an estimated 100 million deaths. Communism has, to date, provided neither peace nor freedom nor prosperity. Following the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved followed by the renunciation of Communism by Russia and in its client states; with the exception of China, an economic hybrid, the role of Marxism in the world began declining precipitously.

Critics have found the Marxist theory of economics badly in error, many of his predictions failed to materialize. He expected that working people in capitalist countries would, over time, be reduced to penury. This has not happened. He predicted that most of the middle class would be absorbed into the proletariat. Wrong again. Marx also expected that increased mechanization would diminish the profits of the capitalists, a prediction that was not only wrong but quite foolish.

social-1958774_960_720.jpg 

But … the rise of the information revolution that began in the last half of the 20th century may finally furnish grist to his mill. At first it appeared that the effect would result in decentralization, power to the people, and the end user with a laptop. But the last few decades have seen the rise of mighty, multinational technology companies, among them Apple, Microsoft, Google and others. Are they becoming our rulers? So far these quasi-monopolies have been immune to 'trust breaking' an urge that was common in earlier eras. (2) World statistics suggest that the ratio of the middle-classes in several countries have begun to shrink; globally, wealth inequality is on the rise and AI has already begun imperiling some professions. Of course, Marx never predicted this turn of events but he may, at last, get his ‘proletariat’ back.

Ultimately the atheist Marx created an ersatz religion complete with its dogmas, Holy Scriptures, foot soldiers, and martyrs. (And heretics). As a founder, he may be roughly equivalent to Mohammed or Zoroaster. However, a philosopher’s importance does not lie in the nobility of his character or the correctness of his views but rather that his ideas move people to action. Judged on that basis, Marx was unquestionably of enormous importance. 

(This essay was published last year on the History Community site)

1-    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/opinion/karl-marx-at-200-influence.html

2-    2- The federal government sued Microsoft in the 1990s for violating anti-monopoly laws and eventually reached a settlement. But nothing since. https://medium.com/@teamwarren/heres-how-we-can-break-up-big-tech-9ad9e0da324c

Edited by Childress

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An interesting historical sidebar: in 1873 Karl Marx sent Charles Darwin a personally inscribed copy of the recently published second edition of Das Kapital. The father of natural selection responded:

Dear Sir:
I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of Mankind.
I remain, Dear Sir. Yours faithfully, Charles Darwin

Marx was thrilled by the attention from the Great Man; he took it as an endorsement. But Darwin merely skimmed the beginning of the book; out of the existing 700 pages only 100 had been uncut. The gentlemanly Darwin, who had little knowledge of German, was likely merely being polite.

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Keep in mind that the Communist movement was itself split by internal dissent and altering viewpoints on Marxist theory. The ideology's evolution did not end with Marx, or Leninism or even Maoism. The often attached criticism that communist movements are inherently violent disregards that developing nations are often violent places, and it ignores the violence the Liberal Democracies inflicted upon South America or Africa for centuries through their own colonialist and imperialist policies whether directly or indirectly. 

Names like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Kautsky are not frequently thrown around in the west, Kautsky especially turned out to be a major critic of the Bolsheviks and their violence, warning that it would undermine and damage views of Marxism worldwide. 

I very much agree with the sentiment that the world Marx had in mind is closer to today than 1917 or 1948. His ideas have thus far not proven correct, but only thus far. 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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 The often attached criticism that communist movements are inherently violent disregards that developing nations are often violent places, and it ignores the violence the Liberal Democracies inflicted upon South America or Africa for centuries through their own colonialist and imperialist policies whether directly or indirectly. 

While if the system that Lenin established does not invariably result in massacres it certainly seems to make it relatively easy for such excesses to occur. Ostensibly Lenin spent his entire life in an attempt to eliminate oppression, but the net result of his- and his successors- activities was the destruction of individual liberties throughout a sizable portion of the globe. Penury followed. Communism was- and is- a militant faith immune to results or logic. IMHO.

...out of the existing 700 pages only 100 had been uncut. 

That should read 'cut'.

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"Critics have found the Marxist theory of economics badly in error, many of his predictions failed to materialize. He expected that working people in capitalist countries would, over time, be reduced to penury. This has not happened. He predicted that most of the middle class would be absorbed into the proletariat. Wrong again."

Um...

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On 10/30/2019 at 10:58 AM, Childress said:

 

THE PHILOSOPHY

The writings of Marx form the theoretical basis of Communism, as well as many other forms of socialism. At the time of his death in 1883 none of his theories had been put into practice. However, in the following century several Marx-inspired governments were established; most significantly China and Russia- among others- based on his teachings. The actual conduct of the Soviets, Chinese, or other Marxist regimes was never rigidly controlled by the works of Marx which spoke of Hegelian dialectic and the surplus value of labor. Such abstractions seem to have had little effect on the day-to-day policies of their governments.

Once in power these regimes kept the world in turmoil; their wars and bloody purges have caused an estimated 100 million deaths. Communism has, to date, provided neither peace nor freedom nor prosperity. Following the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved followed by the renunciation of Communism by Russia and in its client states; with the exception of China, an economic hybrid, the role of Marxism in the world began declining precipitously.

Critics have found the Marxist theory of economics badly in error, many of his predictions failed to materialize. He expected that working people in capitalist countries would, over time, be reduced to penury. This has not happened. He predicted that most of the middle class would be absorbed into the proletariat. Wrong again. Marx also expected that increased mechanization would diminish the profits of the capitalists, a prediction that was not only wrong but quite foolish.

But … the rise of the information revolution that began in the last half of the 20th century may finally furnish grist to his mill. At first it appeared that the effect would result in decentralization, power to the people, and the end user with a laptop. But the last few decades have seen the rise of mighty, multinational technology companies, among them Apple, Microsoft, Google and others. Are they becoming our rulers? So far these quasi-monopolies have been immune to 'trust breaking' an urge that was common in earlier eras. (2) World statistics suggest that the ratio of the middle-classes in several countries have begun to shrink; globally, wealth inequality is on the rise and AI has already begun imperiling some professions. Of course, Marx never predicted this turn of events but he may, at last, get his ‘proletariat’ back.

 

Finally saw this, nice post Childress.

Couple items and have actually read Das Kapital - more than once :P  

There were more than a few items Marx didn't account for.  Some Lenin later addressed and that was the relationship of Capitalism to Imperialism.  Even with that Lenin missed a bit there as well.  Essentially as the position goes Imperialism allowed the Dominant capitalist states to co-opt their own labor movements as partners in their exploitation of 3rd world nations.  The move allowed an increase in the standard of living in their own countries at the expense of a brutal level of exploitation overseas. This is the underpinning of the concept of white privilege etc. In the US this meant the denial of basic liberties and opportunities to black and other non-white labor.  As an example after WW2 the deal with the southern democrats was to deny black Americans the opportunity to take advantage of various GI bills.  A lot of the current disparity of living standards (and the resulting social issues) can be traced to that first generation denied the opportunity to purchase homes that White GIs were afforded.  The fracturing of labor over race lines essentially doomed the labor movements ability to truly make more than a superficial impact.

In terms of current environments, living standards in the US have flatlined for years.  Even with the employment levels we have now these numbers aren't budging.  The latest buzz word is the "gig" economy. It is labor completely unprotected.  No benefits, low wages.  The millennials espouse this concept where they feel no allegiance to a job and want the freedom of not committing.  They get that at the expense of their parents who provide the financial cushion to allow for that behavior. 

https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2017/08/young-adults.html

The cost is their parents retirement income.  The millennium generation will be unable to provide that cushion so the next generation is really going to be screwed.  The current meme is "Okay Boomer", essentially saying they have little to learn from that generation and a lot to blame.  While there is a lot of truth to that, there are some basic issues in that the willingness to work to provide for one's family and do work you may not actually like means financial stability was more assured.  The current generation puts off a lot of what we consider "adulthood decisions" like home owning, marriage, children etc.  It is too early to say how this will all play out and how people will handle a different lifestyle in a rapidly changing society but I worry that the current generation is not realizing the long term cost of the parameters they use in decision making.  The income disparity of the wealthy and the rest of us is worse than it has ever been and the concentration of wealth is showing no signs of slowing.  I live in the heart of Silicon Valley and the harm that the industry is actually doing is pretty evident.  Not just home ownership, but even renting is out of reach for a significant portion of the population that we all depend on the essential services.  Uber and Lyft are not sustainable models of employment.

Back to Marx - his biggest contribution in my eyes is actually the development of dialectical materialism.    From Wiki -

Dialectical materialism is an aspect of the broader subject of materialism, which asserts the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought. Materialism is a realist philosophy of science, which holds that the world is material; that all phenomena in the universe consist of "matter in motion," wherein all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop according to natural law; that the world exists outside us and independently of our perception of it; that thought is a reflection of the material world in the brain, and that the world is in principle knowable. 

 

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On 11/4/2019 at 4:12 PM, Childress said:

 The often attached criticism that communist movements are inherently violent disregards that developing nations are often violent places, and it ignores the violence the Liberal Democracies inflicted upon South America or Africa for centuries through their own colonialist and imperialist policies whether directly or indirectly. 

While if the system that Lenin established does not invariably result in massacres it certainly seems to make it relatively easy for such excesses to occur. Ostensibly Lenin spent his entire life in an attempt to eliminate oppression, but the net result of his- and his successors- activities was the destruction of individual liberties throughout a sizable portion of the globe. Penury followed. Communism was- and is- a militant faith immune to results or logic. IMHO.

I don't necessarily lay any of this at Marx's feet.  If one looks at the violence of the capitalist states and not through the lens we tend to see things, it was a different time.  The development of organized labor was excessively violent mostly perpetrated by the wealthy.  Look at the history of the Pinkertons for example.  The violence of the Soviet and communist China leadership or Cambodia etc to me is a completely different factor and has little to actually do with Marx's philosophy.  This is people and power.  This crosses the lines of political philosophy and is more a matter of governments that become a self interested owner of the wealth of society and enforce rules to maintain that control.  The supposed communist states are more prone I think to this because they don't allow for any political opposition. (The same can be said in my view of states formed on the basis of a state religion)  When you add to that issues with minority populations you then get to the level of genocidal behavior.  Movement of or attempts to eliminate what are considered almost an external threat.  The Uyghurs in China, Cossacks and other populations in Soviet Russia, Armenians in Turkey.  The US has it's own history as do most nations in one way or another.  The willingness of human's to commit violence on one another to mind boggling degrees doesn't seem to have changed.

In terms of your specific comments regarding Lenin - the inner struggles of the Bolsheviks may never be fully known, but the infighting and eventual succession of Stalin is a pretty fascinating and tragic story.

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Your 2 meaty posts together rival or surpass my essay in word count. ;) I'll find some time later to properly digest your points. I find the mass movements of the 20th century with their religious aspects, fascinating. Each of them blossomed into a tyranny of frustrated intellectuals (and artists), from the leaders down. The Nazi and Soviet governments were paradises of clerks. The same could be said of early Christianity.

Edited by Childress

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3 hours ago, Childress said:

Your 2 meaty posts together rival or surpass my essay in word count. ;) I'll find some time later to properly digest your points. I find the mass movements of the 20th century with their religious aspects, fascinating. Each of them blossomed into a tyranny of frustrated intellectuals (and artists), from the leaders down. The Nazi and Soviet governments were paradises of clerks. The same could be said of early Christianity.

LOL yeah I can't say I disagree with any of that.

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