Karl Marx still matters: what the modern left can learn from the philosopher – Vox

Karl Marx still matters: what the modern left can learn from the philosopher – Vox.

At Karl Marx’s funeral, his longtime friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels proclaimed to the less than dozen people gathered, “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.”

Engels has certainly been vindicated. While Marxism has failed, Marx’s ideas changed the world. Still, the story of Marx, the thinker, is complicated.

Marx got plenty of things right. His critique of capitalism is flawed but imperishably useful. He understood that industrialization would upend prevailing social systems and create news ones in their place. He also perceived, perhaps as well as anyone, the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the volatility of business cycles.

Marx got plenty of things wrong, too. He assumed that human nature was plastic and malleable, capable of assuming any form given the right conditions. In addition to being untrue, this was a ready-made justification for grotesque experiments in social engineering.

Marx, foolishly, believed that history had a discernible direction: The progression toward a classless utopia was inalterable and self-evident. This was Marx at his worst, elevating ideas over experience, hope over logic.

In his early writings, he is convinced that capitalism is destined for death. Later, Marx backed off this claim, realizing that capitalism was far more resilient than he initially supposed. By the time his book Capital is released in 1867, more than two decades after The Communist Manifesto was published, he is already imagining communism as a competitor to capitalism rather than its inevitable replacement.

But the revolutionary gusto of early Marx was too seductive for the doctrinaire Marxists that followed in his footsteps. Marxism, as the French writer Albert Camus put it, became a “horizontal religion,” replacing God with history, and eternal salvation with an earthly paradise.

Given everything done in his name, Marx’s legacy defies simple description. Are the words of Marx responsible for the actions of Marxists? How do you tell his story in a way that recognizes what he got right as well as what he got wrong?

There are countless biographies of Marx — probably too many. David McLellan’s Karl Marx: A Biography, originally published in 1973, remains the best and most insightful. But the latest one by Gareth Stedman Jones, a historian of ideas at the University of London, is a remarkable addition.

Titled Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Jones’s book is an attempt to de-mythologize Marx and re-situate him in “his nineteenth-century surroundings.” It’s a sympathetic but measured biography. The picture of Marx we get is different from the one we’re accustomed to: a passionate but flexible thinker, who would have objected to the politics undertaken in his name.

But the most interesting question is the one Jones doesn’t fully answer: Does Marx matter in this moment?

I sat down recently with Jones to talk about the book. I asked him why Marx’s ideas are still relevant, what he got right and wrong about capitalism, and what the modern left might learn from Marx.

Sean Illing

Tell me why Karl Marx still matters.

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think that we first have to separate Marx from Marxism. I think Marxism is demonstrably wrong in various ways. But let’s focus on what Marx himself represents. Whatever we think of him, he gave an amazing picture of the developmental logic of capitalism itself — how it creates world markets, how it invents new needs, how it subverts inherited cultural practices and disregards hierarchies and so on.

He explains all of this with astonishing clarity in The Communist Manifesto, which in so many ways is a paean to the capitalist bourgeoisie and what they’ve created.

Sean Illing

Paean is perhaps too strong a word, but there’s no doubt Marx has a kind of reverence for the achievements of capitalism. What would you say he is most reacting against in his initial writings? Every great thinker is a product of his or her age, but this seems especially true of Marx.

Gareth Stedman Jones

Marx is formed intellectually by the nineteenth-century critiques of religion and Christianity in particular. He really latches on to the idea that God doesn’t create man but man creates God. The subject and object, in other words, are inverted.

Marx’s innovation is to say that this could be applied not just to God but to other abstractions like the state or the economy: man creates these things in the course of history but they appear to him as having independent force, as though he is the creature of them and not the other way around.

Sean Illing

Why was this idea that man creates God, not the other way around, such a politically destabilizing declaration?

Gareth Stedman Jones

Marx changes the nature and implications of the critique of religion. Instead of challenging the claims of the Bible or Christianity, he says we have to understand religion, like everything else, in terms of the evolution and history of mankind; that these things we take to be divine or eternal are merely products of human beings, and that by ignoring that fact we allow ourselves to become objects rather than subjects.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Illing

So when he’s critiquing religion it’s not because it’s untrue but because he thinks it strips people of their sense of agency.

Gareth Stedman Jones

That’s quite right. Whether it was true or not would have been something already sort of debated by David Strauss and Bruno Bauer and various others before them and indeed in the 18th century. Marx’s critique is aimed at changing the material conditions of people, not in settling theological quibbles. So he extends his criticisms to the social and political realm.

Marx says that capitalism, unlike feudalism or slavery, isn’t a product of conquest but rather the result of the development of civil society itself. In other words, human activity led naturally to capitalism. But, over time, we became chained to its progress and thus forgot that we were the creators and that there is always the possibility of creating something new or better or more just.

Sean Illing

People tend to focus on Marx’s early work a lot, because that’s where you get the romanticism and the revolutionary fervor, but you seem to prefer the later Marx.

Gareth Stedman Jones

I’m more interested in where Marx gets to by the 1860s, which is to argue that revolution is not so much an event but a process, that it’s cumulative. I think he invents a language of social democracy which really spreads in the following 40 or 50 years. Marx isn’t the sole inventor of this language, but he is a principal inventor. He gets the international worker’s movement off the ground in many ways. In that sense, he’s one of the prime architects of social democracy.

Sean Illing

His language and ideas spread, but they also get co-opted and transformed. It’s a recurring theme in your book, this idea that what gets said and done in Marx’s name often betrays the spirit of his work.

Gareth Stedman Jones

In the 1850s, Marx still thought that capitalism was an organism, so it would have a birth, a growing up, a maturity and a death. He thought the logic of commodity and individual transactions would spread and encompass the whole world, and that, eventually, we’d witness a crisis and a collapse once the system exhausted its resources. This in any case was Marx’s hope between 1848-1857.

But he gradually becomes aware that capitalism is more resilient than that, that it could adjust to overproduction and overpopulation and bad harvests and all the rest. He saw, in other words, that capitalism wasn’t in some terminal crisis but would carry on. And that becomes clearer and clearer to him after he’s published Capital, in which he realizes that capitalism isn’t nearly as vulnerable as he had hoped. So he actually pivots and starts to believe that primitive communism can somehow survive and bypass capitalist development.

Sean Illing

Why is this evolution not reflected in doctrinaire Marxism at the turn of the century?

Gareth Stedman Jones

The invention of Marxism really happens in the 1870s, and it’s absolutely tethered to the belief that the whole system is doomed and has to be brought down. This leads to a kind of religious fidelity to the idea that capitalism is in crisis and revolutions are necessary in order to hasten its collapse. This sort of thinking is what produces the Bolsheviks in the 20th century.

Meeting in the Putilov Works in Petrograd during the 1917 Russian Revolution.
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Sean Illing

So let’s talk a little more about what Marx actually believed. Marx was influenced by the German philosopher Hegel, who claimed that history was driven by ideas and the evolution of human consciousness. But Marx inverts Hegel and says that it’s class struggle and the productive forces that shape human consciousness and therefore history.

Do you think Marx got this right?

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think there’s a tendency to overestimate how sensational of a claim he is making. You can go back to the 17th century and see that natural law theorists are already making similar claims about the relationship between property, production and society. Marx simply says that you start with hunting and gathering and then you have pasture then you have agriculture and then you have commercial society, and that political arrangements correspond to these developmental stages.

Sean Illing

I’m often frustrated by our inability to divorce Marx’s historical determinism from his critiques of capitalism. Marx, as you say, was wrong about many things, but he understood the pathologies of capitalism, even though he failed to construct a viable alternative.

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think that this is one of his most brilliant insights. He shows that what you have is not just a reproduction or extension of the division of labor but you have a whole system that is producing novelty at the same time that it is creating new systems of social relations which are, in turn, creating new needs. His fundamental point was that this was an inherently volatile and exploitative system, both liable to crisis and likely to hollow out the political institutions which supposedly exists on top of it.

Sean Illing

The main criticism you hear of Marx among political theorists is that he was a closed, systemic thinker. He tried to reduce the world to theory, to make it fit neatly into a conceptual box, which is a fool’s errand.

Is this a fair criticism?

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think it applies more to Engels and to Marxism than to Marx himself. Marx had various limitations and various things that he wasn’t very interested in, and I do think he was blind to many of these weaknesses. He’s informed by his critique of religion but he’s also informed by these ancient Greek ideals of beauty and destiny and justice. But he gets carried away at times. He tried to make the world into something other than it is. I think his followers try to box the world in far more than he ever did.

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Sean Illing

How can Marx’s ideas inform our current debates about globalization, free trade, and neoliberalism?

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think neoliberalism is a new version of making man the creature of forces beyond his control rather than taking responsibility for them. It seems to me, for instance, that a lot of things have gone wrong since the end of the Cold War because in the periods between the Second World War and the beginning of 1990s, there was always this consciousness that there was a Communist presence that had to be combatted and competed with.

That was a Golden Age for social democracy because governments, including the American government, hastened to find an alternative to communism, but that meant recognizing trade unions, encouraging democratic parties, encouraging cooperation in various kinds and so on.

Since 1991, there’s been no counterforce to capitalist developments, and it’s that uncontrolled development that Marx was reacting against in The Communist Manifesto. Today, as before, people are being told that there’s a limit to what we can do and that, even though their jobs are being displaced and their lives are being upended, they just have to deal with it because it’s an inevitable result of progress and development.

But I think this is an abdication of our responsibility to improve and change the world.

Sean Illing

Capitalism does appear to have won, though. The laws of impermanence apply to capitalism as much as they do to anything else, but there is no longer any meaningful alternative, nothing on the other side of capitalism. So where does that leave us?

Gareth Stedman Jones

Well I think we shouldn’t accept that. What we should say is that capitalism may be an inevitable feature of the world, but it can be controlled. It can be channeled into less destructive forms, and that’s what political parties should aspire to do.

Sean Illing

Marx famously wrote that philosophers had only interpreted the world, when the real point was to change it. Marx no doubt changed the world. Do you think he improved it?

Gareth Stedman Jones

It’s very difficult to distinguish between his impact and that of all sorts of other circumstances, but I think we are better off for having his critiques.

Sean Illing

Marx’s critique of religion was that it was a kind of anesthesia. Perhaps there is an analogous critique to be made of our current world, saturated as it is with smartphones and social media and other forms of diversion. Do you think these technologies prevent us from facing our condition and, more importantly, from changing it.

Gareth Stedman Jones

I think that’s right. That’s where his thought remains inspiring and positive. He insisted that the world could be otherwise. Whether it’s smartphones or the internet or conveyor belts and factories, none of these things are beyond our control. There are ways of limiting these things, or at least making sure that we can moderate their influence.

There is always the potential for change, and politics is the way to that change.

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