Updated: Nov 6
By Karl Singarvelan Raha
I would like to dedicate this article to the millions of people who lost their lives due to the oppressive regimes of authoritarian communist dictators in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Cambodia, the Maoist-affected areas of India, and other regions. This article is also dedicated to my best friend, Aiste, and her mother, Ms. Rasa, who endured traumatic experiences under Soviet rule in Lithuania and who faced the wrath of totalitarianism disguised as Marxism. Also to Leeds Communists and my friends and comrades Owen and Jonathan who are promoting a real form of Marxism in the 21st century.
Karl Marx (born 1818 in Trier, died 1883 in London) was a Prussian intellectual who became disillusioned with Hegelian philosophy, and harboured a strong aversion to monarchical rule. Facing arrest, he was exiled to various European countries, including France and Belgium, before finally settling in London. There, he experienced poverty, hunger, and personal tragedies, including the loss of many of his children. Despite these hardships, Marx dedicated his life to researching and advocating for the global proletariat, aiming to free them from the oppressive forces of capitalism and bourgeois society. His statelessness, and his extensive knowledge of working-class struggles on all six inhabited continents, makes him universally relevant.
When someone asks who suffered the most from Marxism, one might argue that it was Karl Marx himself. He and his wife Jenny lived in dire poverty, often having to pawn their possessions, including Marx's own coat, just to survive. At one point, their situation was so bad that Jenny lamented the horrifying reality of her breasts oozing blood instead of milk as she struggled to nourish her children. Tragically, they experienced the heart-breaking loss of several of their own children in infancy, a pain that no parent should endure.
Marx's dedication to his intellectual pursuits led him to the London Museum Library, where he read voraciously despite his deteriorating physical and mental health. He suffered from a range of ailments, including painful carbuncles, diabetes, skin diseases, and psychological illnesses.
Despite these personal challenges, Marx, with the invaluable collaboration of Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), made enduring contributions to the fields of economics, sociology, philosophy, and history. Their combined body of work is commonly referred to as Marxism.
In recognition of Marx's profound influence on human thought and society, he has been acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in history. He ranks high among the top 100 influential people of all time in various surveys, including Time magazine's list and also in Top 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential People by Michael H. Hart. His seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, co-authored with Engels, has sold over 500 million copies, making it second only to the Bible in terms of global circulation.
In recent times, there has been a resurgence of interest in left-leaning socialism and Marxism, particularly among the younger generations. Countries such as the UK, USA, and France, where socialism was previously rejected, are witnessing a shift. This transformation can be attributed to rising unemployment, wealth inequality, housing crises, and growing social disparities.
The New York Times has gone so far as to label Karl Marx as the "Prophet of the Present", and The Washington Post has noted the rise of socialism in the USA, detecting a scent of Marxism in the air. Marx's ideas continue to resonate and shape discussions about social and economic justice in our contemporary world.
Elements of Marx's philosophy
Marx's famous works, in addition to the Manifesto, include Capital (3 volumes), Critique of German Philosophy, Wage Labour and Capital, and other works that take a humanistic approach. Friedrich Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State is also noteworthy.
Dialectical Materialism serves as the philosophical foundation for Marxism, offering a framework for understanding the social and natural world in terms of their internal contradictions, interactions, and changes. Rejecting supernatural and spiritual explanations, it focuses on material conditions – such as economic, social, and political factors – as the primary drivers of human action and historical development. While it shares with humanism an emphasis on reason and empirical observation, dialectical materialism is specifically geared toward understanding and critiquing the structures of power and inequality in society.
Historical Materialism is the methodological framework that underpins the Marxist understanding of society and history. According to this perspective, the economic 'base'– comprising the means of production, such as tools, machines, and raw materials, as well as the relations of production involving class interactions between the bourgeoisie, proletariat, and other social groups – is the foundational force that shapes the ideological and political 'superstructure'. This superstructure encompasses various elements of society, including art, culture, law, politics, and even family dynamics, and while it can influence the base, it is ultimately shaped and maintained by it. This framework provides a comprehensive lens through which to understand a wide range of historical phenomena, from the centralisation of professions and the American Slave Trade to colonial exploitation in India and Africa, among others. Each serves as an example of how economic conditions influence the broader contours of societal development.
While figures like Gandhi are indelibly linked with India, Lee Kuan Yew with Singapore, and George Washington with the United States, Karl Marx stands as a citizen of the world. His writings transcend geographical boundaries, citing examples that stretch from the East of India to the frontiers of America in the West. Unlike theorists who focused on specific national contexts, Marx's framework is globally applicable, addressing the universal condition of labour and capital. He envisioned a world unified through the struggles of the working class, a sentiment epitomized in the closing call to arms of The Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the World, Unite!" For Marx, the world was not a collection of disparate nations but a unified field of resources and human potential, deserving of equitable distribution and collective stewardship.
On class struggle and division
As articulated in the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." According to Marx, society is fundamentally divided into two main classes: the bourgeoisie (capitalist property owners) and the proletariat (working class). The latter is subjugated and exploited by the former. This class division has deeply segmented society, with the more privileged groups exerting oppressive control over those beneath them. In earlier times, humans lived in communal societies, where resources such as fields, water, meat, and grain were shared. However, with agriculture and permanent settlement came patriarchy and the concept of private property, leading to the formation of monarchies and hierarchies. This shift engendered various forms of discrimination, with rulers, aristocrats, and privileged castes or classes dominating and marginalising a wide range of groups – from slaves and foreigners to landless farmers and socially oppressed castes. The struggle between classes remains a pressing issue, with many people enduring its consequences. Recent surveys even suggest that there are more people living in conditions akin to slavery today than there were in the 15th or 16th centuries.
Karl Marx famously declared, "Religion is the opium of the people" – a symptom of societal misery. This assertion remains relevant. Religion often serves to make individuals compliant followers, discouraging them from questioning or challenging entrenched systems of power. Many religious leaders effectively advance the interests of the business elite. Religion can turn people into cult-like followers who do not challenge businessmen or other funders of religion. For example, when Jaggi Vasudev, commonly known as Sadhguru, stated during the 2023 Indian Budget discussions that the government should prioritise the interests of business people, he overlooked the plight of workers and the middle class, who toil to fill the pockets of a select few. In his early works, Marx argues that atheism represents a rejection of illusion and insists that human consciousness can evolve without the need for divine intervention or religious belief.
Marx characterized humans as inherently creative beings, and he considered that labour is an essential aspect of human existence. The value of labour is evident throughout history, from the grand constructions of ancient Egypt to the recent building of mega-structures in the Middle East. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), he argued that while animals labour solely for their own survival, humans engage in labour that benefits the broader world. For Marx, labour should not be a mere expenditure of effort; it must be compensated adequately. Even today, the value assigned to most products and services is predominantly based on the resources used to create them, while labour's contribution to their value is often marginalised or minimised.
Marx was keenly aware of environmental issues. In Volume 1 of Capital, he asserted that "Capitalist production, by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer – develops technology and integrates various processes into a societal structure". He also argued that capitalism exploits natural resources, particularly soil fertility. For Marx, humans are intrinsically linked to nature, as if nature is an extension of their own bodies, necessitating a continual exchange for survival. Contemporary examples, such as the displacement of tribal communities in India and South America due to industrial expansion, underline the ongoing relevance of his concerns. The case of Salvador Allende, the former President of Chile who was overthrown with US backing for nationalising the coal and copper industries, further illustrates the lengths to which capitalist interests will go to thwart environmental and social reforms. Other examples from Latin America are the 1968 Peru coup and the 1964 Brazil coup, both of which were in part responses to socialist policies.
The term "intersectionality" was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, and leading scholar in the field of critical race theory. She coined the term in a 1989 paper to describe how different social categorisations such as race, class, and gender intersect and overlap to create a unique system of disadvantage and advantage. The concept has since been widely adopted and expanded upon in various academic disciplines and social justice activism. Marxists agree that individuals and groups can experience multiple forms of overlapping oppression simultaneously. It provides the flexibility for followers to protest against patriarchy, racism, caste discrimination, and other forms of oppression – either in isolation or in combination.
Marx foresaw that capitalism could give rise to a host of societal ills. While critics on the political right are quick to highlight the failings of governments claiming to be communist, it's crucial to note that these regimes often diverged significantly from Marxist principles. Though capitalism is lauded as a catalyst for innovation and job creation, it also engenders a range of negative outcomes, including economic inequality, mental health issues like stress and anxiety, exploitative labour practices, and systemic social injustices. Moreover, various US administrations from Roosevelt’s to Obama’s have engaged in military conflicts that have resulted in casualty counts surpassing those attributed to Marxist governments.
Democracy and the 1871 Paris Commune
Marx argued that democracy would serve as the most suitable pathway to socialism, emphasising the need for broad-based participation in decision-making, particularly among the proletariat. In The Communist Manifesto and subsequent writings, he and Engels asserted that "The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class and to win the battle for democracy". He was referring to the need for a fundamental shift in the balance of power within society. By becoming the ruling class, the proletariat would have the power to implement societal changes that reflected their interests and needs, such as enacting laws that promote social welfare and economic equality. It's a way to "win the battle of democracy", as Marx puts it, creating a society that is structured to meet the needs of the many rather than serving the interests of a wealthy few.
It's worth noting that the 1871Paris Commune, a revolutionary government influenced by Marx's ideas, was established during his lifetime. The Commune was a social-democratic and secular government established by workers and peasants, aimed at creating a progressive administration. During its brief existence of 70 days, the Commune enacted a series of progressive decrees that included the separation of church and state, rent reductions, the abolition of child labour, the provision of pensions, and the empowerment of employees to manage enterprises. Additionally, the government banned employer-imposed fines and removed religious instruction from schools. A form of direct democracy was in place, allowing delegates to be recalled if they were deemed ineffective. The Commune also prioritised social welfare, establishing canteens, first aid stations, free educational supplies, orphanages, and local assemblies. Clerical influence over churches was significantly reduced. Ultimately, the government fell due to actions taken by the national French Army. The Commune period is often cited as an example of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", a transitional phase from a capitalist to a communist government in which the working class takes control of the means of production, holds elections, appoints council delegates, and transitions to collective ownership, as discussed in the Communist Manifesto.
Marxism today and why I disassociated myself from Indian Communists
While communism as practiced in the USSR, China, and Cambodia has often been associated with Marxism, it's important to note that these regimes were more closely aligned with Stalinism and Maoism than with Marxist ideology. Leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot propagated their own interpretations of Marxism, often using their cult of personality to overshadow the original tenets of the ideology. These regimes deviated significantly from the principles laid out by Marx and Engels. They centralized power rather than decentralizing it, engaged in political repression, and promoted jingoistic nationalism, all in stark contrast to Marxist ideals. In contemporary times, the Communist Party in the United Kingdom has undergone reforms and attracted a younger demographic interested in social justice. Indian communists could learn from this example. Unfortunately, some still hold on to archaic views, idolising figures like Mao and Stalin without critical evaluation. It would be beneficial for them to look toward the teachings and practices of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Bhagat Singh, P. Sundarayya, and E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who advocated a more democratic and humanistic approach to communism.
It's not essential for everyone to be a Marxist of course, but it's crucial to understand it correctly before forming an opinion. As someone who identifies with humanism, I have my disagreements with Marx, but that's the essence of rational discourse. To gain an in-depth understanding of authentic Marxism, I recommend delving into works such as Principles of Communism by Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, and The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Engels, as well as more contemporary analyses such as Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right (2018) and Ernst Fischer's How to Read Karl Marx (1996). These works offer a nuanced view of one of the most misinterpreted thinkers in history. As the saying goes, "Marxism will exist as long as capitalism does".
The question of whether Karl Marx was a humanist, in the sense we attach to that word today, is complex and controversial. In his early works, particularly the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues for a society where human beings can realise their full potential, free from exploitation. This is sometimes referred to as Marx's "humanism". But the totalitarianism which has been inspired by Marxism, whether this can be blamed on Marx himself or not, is the antithesis of humanism with its emphasis on the values of freedom, democracy, and our common humanity. At Humanistically Speaking, we are open to exploring the complexities of these philosophical and historical questions and our contributors' views are their own.