Today marks two hundred years since the birth of Karl Marx. He remains a divisive figure today, the impact of his ideas having been as deep, lasting and widely diffused as any political theory ever expounded. The cruelty of various ‘Marxist’ regimes make it easy to understand why not everyone is eager to celebrate his birthday.
The people of Trier in Germany, Marx’s home town, are not so hesitant, and are throwing him a birthday party. There will be speeches, demonstrations, art installations and the unveiling of a statue created in China. The whole event is in fact funded by China. City spokesman Mark Schmitz said people in Trier have “long been a bit ashamed about Marx.”
So it would appear that only China is truly making an effort to celebrate the bicentennial. Those celebrating Marx’s birthday in Trier can cap the day off by watching a documentary series produced by China’s state broadcaster called “Marx Is Right”. The statement is a contentious one today, and not one that truly holds up in China, as despite claims, there seems to be little that is Marxist about the Chinese economy.
It is undeniable, however, that Marx’s ideas have been hugely influential and that he remains an important figure. The words of the Communist Manifesto still have a place in popular culture one hundred and seventy years after they were written.‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’, ‘The Proletarians have nothing to lose except their chains, they have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!’
It is less certain that the Communist systems that followed the publication of the Manifesto bear much resemblance to the theory. We appear to be left with a truth that thus far Marx’s ideas have failed to actually affect the positive change he envisaged.
For Marx, communism was the original human condition. Primitive communism existed in hunter-gatherer societies, where there was no private property and all who were able to gathered food and shared it among the community. Marx then traces the stages of history from primitive communism, to slave society, to feudalism, to capitalism. Once the working class gain awareness of their condition, he believed that inevitably they will revolt and socialism will be established. This has arguably been disproved as it would appear that today those who are exploited by the capitalist class are aware of it, and yet the revolution Marx foresaw has not yet occurred.
The practical importance of Marx’s ideas seemed to reach their height in twentieth century politics. The first supposedly socialist state to be established was the Soviet Union in 1917. This was highly influenced by Marx and Engels, and works such as the Manifesto were required reading for party leaders.
Yet the socialist revolution in Russia bares little resemblance to the revolution in which the working class overthrow the capitalists, ending “all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles”. In fact, the viability of the works of Marx were questioned and it was ultimately Lenin’s construction of a longer-term vision of socialism and communism that saw the adoption of communism in Russia.
Lenin took a slightly different approach from Marx in that he saw some people as more politically aware and so should be leaders – a paradoxically elitist form of communism. This was more revolutionary, in practice, as it became the justification for many revolutionaries seizing power, but it fails to execute Marx’s vision. Lenin also promoted revolution in Russia, ignoring Marx’s theory that lack of industrialisation would have made it less than entirely ready.
By the 1970s a third of the world’s population lived within communist systems. There had been almost twenty communist states. None, however, resembled those proposed by Marx. So despite how influential his work has been, or perhaps because of it, his ideas have been distorted, often beyond recognition.
It would also seem that many today are willing to return to Marx as people grow more disenchanted with capitalism, a feeling particularly strong among millennials who have not benefited from the system and feel exploited. Likely today, two hundred years on from his birth, Marx would find a more receptive audience. We yet see a transformation of Marx’s reputation.