Does Marx matter today? Relearning history for the future on Karl Marx's 200th birthday

Jaideep Sen Published :  04th May 2018 12:31 PM   |   Published :   |  04th May 2018 12:31 PM
Karl Marx

Karl Marx

It might seem tricky to breach the subject of Karl Marx’s teachings in the present day. But that’s exactly Professor Venkatesh B Athreya’s challenge, as he presents the talk, as a part of ‘Marx Matters’, commemorating the 200th birth anniversary of the German revolutionary and theorist, who was born in Trier, Germany, on 5 May 1818, and died in London on 14 March 1883. “Karl Marx is among the greatest thinkers in human history,” offers Professor Athreya in an email interview. Here's the complete interaction:

How would you describe Marx's importance, among world leaders in history, as one of the greatest thinkers of all time?
Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday is on May 5, 2018, hardly a few days away, is undoubtedly among the greatest thinkers in human history. In the case of Marx, his thinking was directly linked to practical action to transform human societies in a progressive direction. 

He himself took part in some major struggles and movements of his time and faced imprisonment as well as deportation and exile. What is unique to Marx’s thought is the emphasis on the unity of theory and practice. This is encapsulated brilliantly in his Theses on Feuerbach where you have his famous statement: “Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.”

Tell us a little about the objectives of your talk, 'Does Marx matter today?' How do you hope to make Marx's teaching relevant to youngsters, in particular?
Following the global economic and financial crisis of 2008, even mainstream economists and leading political figures of the Establishment in the advanced capitalist societies have recognised the continuing relevance of Marx’s profound work Das Kapital in which Marx demonstrates the inevitability of economic crises under the capitalist mode of production. 

The relevance of Marx for youngsters, however, goes beyond his brilliant analysis of the political economy of capitalism. Marx was deeply committed to the cause of well being of human beings and human societies from a very young age. In an essay entitled The Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession written by him in 1835 when he was hardly 18 years of age, Marx makes the point that a life dedicated to the well being of fellow human beings is indeed a life well lived, and one that is ennobling and inspiring. In my talk, I will dwell on Marx’s sustained commitment to the cause of human well being as well as on his fine scientific analysis of capitalism. 

Professor Venkatesh B Athreya


How do you hope to, specifically, undo a lot of the negativity that has come to surround Marxist ideologies, over the years? What positives will you focus on?
It is true that in elite circles both well-funded anti-Marxist propaganda and class interests have contributed to a section having negative perceptions of Marxism and Marxist Ideology. In particular, Marx’s remarkable commitment to human liberation has been carefully concealed or greatly distorted among these circles by cold war propaganda and subsequent neoliberal ideological/media hegemony. 

Recall, however, that, while it took capitalism several centuries to spread across the world, four decades after the Socialist Revolution in 1917 in Russia, a third of the people of the world and a sixth of its territory was under some variant of Socialism, reflecting the wide acceptance of Marxism among ordinary working people across the world. 

Marx’s profound humanism, the continuing relevance of his analysis of capitalism and the achievements of Socialism in eliminating the scourges of unemployment and poverty and ensuring universal education and health care within a relatively short period, without colonial exploitation, and in the face of sustained hostility, denial of access to markets and technologies and war-mongering by the advanced capitalist countries led by the USA – all these will help demolish the negative perceptions of Marxist Ideology. Equally important will be the learning of appropriate lessons by Socialists across the world from their errors as well as achievements.
How do you envision Communism having an impact on global affairs, going ahead from here? Also, do you see Socialistic ideologies resurfacing in international politics?
Now that the long run stagnation of the capitalist economy, its proneness to recurring economic/financial crises, the central role of the mindless pursuit of profit in the dangerous weaponisation of the world, environmental destruction and the huge climate crisis are all becoming increasingly evident, leaders across the world have begun to recognise the need for collective action to ensure human survival. 

When Bill Gates says that capitalism cannot solve the challenge of climate change and only Socialism can, you can see that the word ‘Socialism’ is no longer anathema even to a section of the elite and powerful global capitalist leaders. Of course, what they mean by this term is bound to be very different from notions of Socialism ‘from below’!

Nonetheless, and especially with increasing concerns about obscene inequality that is seen as limiting growth prospects via demand effects and undermining social sustainability, I believe that Socialism will be very much on the agenda of the world, various nation states and most important, working people, in the days and years to come. The fact that profit-driven capitalism is increasingly seen as unable to address the triple crises of mass unemployment, climate change and widespread hunger will ensure this.
How does all of this, and Marx's insights, have an influence on current economic crises, concerns of inequality and slow economic growth?
I have partly answered this above. The work of Piketty and others have brought to the fore what Marx had so accurately described in his magnum opus Capital: ‘The general law of capitalist accumulation is the accumulation of wealth at one pole and misery at the other.’ Long before Keynes, Marx had recognised the tendency to under-consumption as one of the basic reasons for the periodic collapse of demand and economic reproduction under capitalism. 

The era of dominance of finance capital shows the operation of both the tendency to under-consumption and the tendency for the rate of profit to fall that Marx had correctly identified as inherent in the logic of capitalism. There is now a big revival of interest among academics globally in the work of Marx and Marxists on the sources of capitalist economic crises and stagnation as well as increasing inequality under capitalism.
What manner of questions do you expect to face at the talk? What are the common concerns about Marxism - not just among the youngsters?
What questions would come up after my talk I cannot predict, as it would depend on both the interests of the audience and the effectiveness with which I communicate my ideas to them! The common concerns about Marxism may include its contemporary relevance, its presumed ‘rigidity’ and especially its alleged incapacity to deal with social phenomena such as caste and the caste system specific to India and a few other countries nearby. 

A related concern may be the notion that Marxism emphasises the economic sphere and does not pay enough attention to the other spheres such as ideology and politics. Questions may also be posed on how Marxism understands and deals with Religion.

Karl Marx


Would you consider religion to be a crucial aspect in this discussion? How differently are these discourses received among different cultures, in your experience?
Marx’s views on religion have been so distorted by commentators including some who consider themselves to be sympathetic to Marxism. A recurrent misunderstanding is about the alleged dismissal by Marx of ‘Religion as the opium of the masses’. 

I cannot speak with authority on how this discourse has evolved across many cultures. One thing can be said: Anti-Marxists have always tried to portray Marx and Marxism to be hostile to religious people. Nothing can be farther from the truth. 

While Marx recognises that the dominant classes in all societies have historically used religion to legitimise their dominance, he also recognises that religion is a response to the needs of human beings who feel powerless or disempowered in society and in their personal lives. He talks not merely of religion being an opiate of the masses in the sense of the illusions of religion helping to numb the pains of one’s miserable or anxiety-ridden social existence. He also speaks of religion as ‘the heart of a heartless world’ and ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’.

Is there a point to note here about our education system as well? How does a lot of this affect our understanding of how educators need to evolve their thought processes?
Our education system today, speaking of India, is in shambles. It is a system that rewards those who answer questions and discourages those who ask them! Access to the system is highly unequal, with the rich elite able to go to expensive schools and colleges and the poor left far behind. It reproduces and reinforces economic, social and political inequality of an obscene kind. The academic content of our education system needs to be overhauled to promote scientific curiosity, and commitment to the values of secularism, critical thinking and equality. 

While Marx himself did not write extensively on education, Marxists have. Some of the early experiments in education in the USSR in the 1920s described by Makarenko in his two-volume treatise The Road to Life still remain relevant as do experiments in other socialist countries and  educational innovations pioneered and further developed by Marxists in the non-socialist world. One basic point that should be stressed is that, from a Marxist viewpoint, education must be a weapon against obscurantism and bigotry, both of which, while always substantially present in India, have been present in even greater abundance in the recent past. 
Will you be addressing concerns about Donald Trump's presidency, and the correlation to capitalistic ideas of the new age?
It would depend on the concerns of the audience. I may deal with these matters while responding to questions that may be raised in this regard by the audience.
How would you like your readers, and audience members, to remember Karl Marx - and extend his lessons to future generations?
If I may paraphrase what Marx said, shortly after he had nearly worked himself to exhaustion, under conditions of penurious existence, in finishing Das Kapital, ‘I laugh at the wise men who tell me to be practical. One can, of course, choose to live like an ox and turn one’s back on human suffering.’ The message is clear: Let us live as human beings, motivated by a genuine concern for fellow human beings. Our lives would not be in vain, if they have served the goal of improving human well being, not as measured by GDP, but in the sense of advancing on the road to human liberation.
As a part of Marx Matters, Prof Athreya’s talk ‘Does Marx Matter Today?’ will be on May 5, followed by ‘Marx and Tamil Nadu’ by C Mahendran. Raoul Peck’s 2017 film, ‘The Young Karl Marx (Der Junge Karl Marx)’ will be screened on May 6. The book ‘Marx & Engels – Selected Works’ will be released on May 7. At Goethe-lnstitut/Max Mueller Bhavan.