By Tahir M. Qazi, MD
Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818–March 14, 1883), the visionary, the seer of social justice. He stands tall among the prophets of human history. He provided a philosophical framework for human liberation from the shackles of injustice and exploitation in this world. The world religions bear out the same promise of justice but in the hereafter.
Marx’s theoretical contributions to the pursuit of human freedom transcend time as his 193rd birthday approaches on 5th of May this year. Etched on the Marx’s tombstone in Highgate cemetery, London, the words read: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
While the materialist philosophy of Karl Marx has been the subject of many polemics for almost past 150 years, Marx has singularly influenced social systems in the communist as well as capitalist world. Failings of communists and shortcomings of the capitalist regimes aside for now, philosophically, Marx unified the theory of social justice with the practical human activity.
Human beings have always been the unconscious hand of history. One of the enduring contributions of Marx is that he made the ordinary people, their mundane endeavors and class struggle as the conscious force of the movement of history. Apropos, Marx is credited with giving a new outlook to history through the prism of dialectics. Pre-Marx historiography was, and still is, a chronological narrative of “kings, wars and treaties” in the words of Eric Hobasbawm. However, imprints of Marx are easily traceable on historiography, which is ever more being written in forms of people’s activity and forces of production.
The most profound understanding of Marx came from Engle at the funeral speech when he lavished praise on Marx in the following words, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”
Marx conceived that the material forces of history can deliver freedoms to the individuals and societies. Communism, as utopian as it might seem at this time, according Marx, could shape the society of the future. He conceived of human relations as free from exploitation, liberating and moving towards self-actualization. Self-actualization – A dream of all human beings. Marx dissected history to find out that the roots of injustice are in the social and economic history of the mankind. This method of analysis of social history is termed as “Marxism” and “The Left” in the popular vernacular.
Marxism – This question eludes a simple answer. It puzzles many and is the subject of long discussions. I would make a brief digression at this point to explain what an “ism” is in social sciences. For anything to be termed as an “ism” it has to provide a theoretical tool for analysis of history, an ideological tool to lay down the fabric of values and culture and a political tool to build the structure of a society. Coming back to Marxism, it is the materialist conception of history. But, what is the materialist conception of history?
Consider the relationship of slave and master that existed in history for a very long time. It still exists but its forms are different. In the modern times, the traditional mater-slave relationship is replaced by mega-corporations and their workers. At the political level, it is a world order where some nations are subjugated by the powerful ones and the poor nations are buried under a multitude of social and economic problems and their fate is dictated by their global financial masters.
Master-slave dipole whether in its contemporary form or the primitive one is a social relationship. Slavery is mostly understood in moral terms as an injustice or a wrong-doing in the value-system. In reality, it is an economic relationship, indeed a very profitable relationship. Historically, it existed among Romans, Muslims, Europeans and Americans and various others societies.
Marx asserted, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Societies are always grounded in the realities of inherited history. No individual can escape history either because individuals are knit societies; their behaviors, customs and social relations at any point in time are the shadow of the future-history and the omen for future destiny individually and collectively.
This understanding helps us locate cultures, traditions and consciousness on the spectrum of analyzable history of the mankind. It is diagonally opposite of what all religions and the pre-Marx philosophies have been teaching from antiquity that it is consciousness
that determines life. Marx pointed out the fallacy of the idealist philosophy. He turned it upside down and created a theory entrenched in the mundane human action: It is the human activity and material relations that determine consciousness, not the other way around. Therefore, for sake of well-being and social justice, the focus of activity needs to be located in the forces of production and the relations of production.
He saw human liberation in the labor work of the proletariat whose collective-activity is a weapon that can bring about liberation and hence, he propounded, “the riddle of history solved”. The goal of history – liberation of human being; it cannot be actualized without dispelling illusions such as religious consciousness and libertarian philosophies that focus on change of hearts and minds only. Human liberation is in human action. This sows the seeds of revolution as an instrument of liberation. This action is directed towards establishing a society where communism will provide ideological and
Human beings are confronted with other challenges of history too: The product of human labor in the form of surplus is taken away by the capitalist. There are two important precepts here: Use-value and exchange-value. For example, need for a house to rest at night and satisfy the desire for a certain type of home is one thing. It has an innate material value. But, exchange-value adds an additional value to the house that is added and taken away by someone else. Exchange-value is the product of market system that accumulates capital by this method. With the help of this tool, when extrapolated on the global scale over time, historically, has given rise to accumulation of wealth in the
hands of a few. Wealth in few hands is a tool for exploitation.
It creates conditions for greed, competition and private property. It creates conditions where a worker is removed from the fruits of his work. Alienation, in Marxist sense, is not an emotional state of mind. It is alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor. In real terms alienation is reinforced by what Marx called “relations of production”. Relations of production exist among people and among people and material things such as property, machinery or organizations. The ethics, religious decrees, culture or legalities that regulate relation of production, Marx call them the “superstructure of society.”
Eventually, it is the superstructure that becomes the apparatus for oppression in the hands of powerful. Therefore, dismantling the “superstructure” is the goal of proletariat struggle and revolution is a tool towards this end when social conditions are ripe. It aims at establishing society where abolition of wage-labor and private property would help overcome alienation.
The finesse of the Marxist theory seems to have lost some of its shine when it got the chance to change the material reality for the common man under communism. Realistically, the communist societies are credited with free education and health care. However, social freedoms were not the strength of any communist society. On the other hand, capitalist nation-state structures whether religious or secular are not immune from such criticism either.
Modern societies are more complex than ever before. The liberation that Marx envisioned has been misused by individuals for personal interests. When individual behaves at the expense of society, it brings the liberal paradox to the fore. Actually, Sigmund Freud has also hinted towards it in his seminal lecture series, Civilization and Its Discontents. If an individual tries to subvert the system for sake of self-interest, understandable as it might be, it reflects a narrow outlook. When everybody acts only in self-interest it breeds chaos. The social structures are erected to guard against this paradox. An important
understanding that comes from the study of liberal paradox is to balance the critical relationship between the individual freedoms and societal stability.
Establishing a just human society in the global times is not an easy task. It is a work in progress. It is a dream of practical human activity geared towards liberating human consciousness from the weight of history and illusion to establish a system of social democratic partnerships where authoritarianism has no room and where common man is
free from the bondage of exploitative relations. Marx avowedly stood for it and forcefully argued, “The struggle for legally limited working day is more vital to the working classes than a pompous catalogue of the inalienable rights.” If nothing else, Marx has survived the test of time for his advocacy for the rights of ordinary human beings. Indeed,
the success of social democracy in the capitalist world owes a lot to the theoretical analysis of history propounded by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engle both, the seer and visionary in their own right for social justice.
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