Karl Marx was one of the greatest thinkers ever born; however, the adjective 'greatest' here doesn't connote the beneficent aspects of his theories; instead it refers to the impact his philosophy once had on millions of people all over the world till a few decades ago and the profound influence it still has on a large section of the intellectual class. It is in this milieu that his 200th birth anniversary on May 5 should be viewed.
For almost a century after his birth, he was just one of the many proponents of socialism, a more erudite and sharp theorist, but a theorist nonetheless; he had little impact on politics. It was only after the 1917 Russian Revolution that his ideology became a major force to reckon with, not only in Russia and the West but across the globe.
Reams can be written on Marx but if one has to define him in essence, one can say that his philosophy was a reaction against the Enlightenment - an intellectual movement in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries which was oriented around individual autonomy, liberty, and reason. The movement engendered tectonic shifts in our understanding of philosophy, science, nature, religion, politics, and economy. During the Enlightenment, reason and empirical evidence undermined authority, both ecclesiastical as well as political; emphasis shifted from concerns about the next world to happiness in this one, thus altering the paradigm of the pursuit of knowledge; progress and improvability were recognized as both desirable and doable; humanist thought received many a fillip: all these changes had a profound impact upon the economy whose contours fundamentally were tremendously altered, paving the path for the Industrial Revolution and general prosperity.
But all this did not happen in a simple, linear fashion; it was not like corollaries flowing from a proven theorem. There was strong resistance to Enlightenment ideas. Many prominent thinkers, especially in Germany, railed against the Enlightenment's universalist ideas and proffered organismic, nativistic notions instead. They privileged feeling and instinct over reason and empirical evidence, subjectivity over objectivity, and poetry over science.
For instance, the German philosopher, J.G. Hamann (1730-88), wrote, "Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race." This was not surprising because, in Hamann's scheme of things, "God is a poet, not a mathematician." "God speaks to us in poetical words, addressed to the senses, not in abstractions for the learned." Therefore, "poetry is the native language of mankind, and gardening is more ancient than agriculture, painting than writing, song than recitation, proverbs than rational conclusions, barter than trade." This proclivity persisted through Fichte, Schiller, Hegel, till Martin Heidegger, the great philosopher who was also a Nazi.
Marx, a German Jew who lived much of his life in London, belongs to his country's tradition; even though he discarded its poetic, mystical elements, he never really gave up its organismic worldview. He instead replaced the poetic idealism of German philosophers', especially of Hegel's, with materialism. Hence Marx's dialectical materialism.
But, as mentioned earlier, like fascism and Nazism, Marxism remained a counter-Enlightenment, collectivist, totalitarian ideology. All such ideologies trailed a blaze in their heyday, attracting top politicians, seducing prominent intellectuals, and often mesmerizing ordinary people, but ultimately resulting in war, mass murder, slave camps, unprecedented devastation, and economic ruin. For at the heart of collectivism and totalitarianism lies darkness; this is why they are at odds with the Enlightenment. In the ultimate analysis, communism is a benighted ideology, undermining individual liberty, reason, and commonsense. Over 100 million people perished under communist regimes because of purges, collectivization drives, forced starvation, etc.
The tragedy is that while fascism and Nazism are universally, and rightly, denounced as evil, communism still enjoys respectability not only in politics but also among intellectuals. In a way, it is astonishing, because those who know more ought to warn the general populace about the danger that communism is; on the contrary, though, these very people actually spread the discredited doctrines of communism and its lighter version, socialism. Come to think of it, technically even India is, as per the Preamble of our Constitution, still a "socialist" republic - this after 27 years of economic reforms and dumping of many socialist policies.
Marx is still celebrated by thought leaders. The Times Of India reported on May 1, "From June 16-20 A-list academics, ranging from London to Buenos Aires and Moscow to Dakar, will deliver 38 lectures and present 17 papers in what promises to be a non-stop birthday party of the Marxian kind in an unlikely city: Patna"
But that is among one "a plethora of gatherings and conferences being organized by the various families of the left," The Guardian reported on February 3. "Shadow chancellor John McDonnell-arguably Britain's best-known Marxist-will speak on the theme of 'Into the 21st century: Marxism as a force for change today' alongside guests from around the world, including Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist), and Luo Wendong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences."
So, Marx may be dead but his spectre continues to haunt us.
(Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He has spent around 25 years in the media. As a freelance journalist, Kapoor has written for a number of leading publications. He has written four books on Indian politics and its associated institutions.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)