On the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on May 5 1818 the great man's analysis of Capitalism is more relevant than ever. For the post-Stalinist generation the socialism that he inspired remains its best chance of a viable future.
FOR AN OLDER generation Marxism is indelibly stained with the atrocities that was committed in its name by the degenerated workers' states of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, where genuine working class control was usurped by a bureaucratic elite. Even now an older generation still can't understand why anyone could support someone like Karl Marx whose sole aim was apparently to enslave humankind to totalitarian servitude.
That mindset has been built on the prejudices of conservatives and liberals alike. They invariably pointed an accusing finger at the totalitarianism of 'actually existing socialism' in order to 'prove' their argument that capitalism was the best system we could ever hope for. In the case of liberals they thought that a 'managed economy' would provide a 'kinder and gentler' capitalism. In New Zealand that led to the insular post-1945 social democratic economy that aspired to build 'capitalism in one country'. If there was to be an economic nirvana in New Zealand, it was one that would be presided over by John Maynard Keynes and his acolytes.
in 1992 Francis Fukuyama argued in his book The End of History that liberal capitalist democracy was the logical endpoint of human development. His book was published three years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But less than thirty years later the liberal capitalist democracy that Fukuyama endorsed has delivered us little more than deepening poverty and increasing inequality. At the same time, the one percent have strangled the life out of 'representative democracy'. Capitalism also threatens to destroy the planet as we know it.
It is one of the historical ironies that it is the social democratic parties that once professed a loyalty to a 'kinder and gentler capitalism' that became the vehicles for implementing the poisonous ideology of neoliberalism and which many continue to defend under the guise of 'centrism'.
But in the post-Stalinist era a new generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, fear not socialism but capitalism. Unlike their elders, many millennials recognise that the future is either socialism or barbarism. There is no third way. As Sarah Leonard, co-author of The Future We Want observes, 'my generation's best chance is socialism.'
Nor do millennials have any faith in their so-called 'political representatives' who offer little in the way of new ideas. When the cheerleaders for the political establishment demand that people vote, the answer comes back: For what? In New Zealand general elections are now conducted with almost a million people no longer participating, such is the level of disillusionment and cynicism.
It is this political environment and at this moment in time that there is a renewed interest in the ideas of Karl Marx,. On the 200th anniversary of his birth on May 5 1818, Marx's analysis of capitalism is increasingly relevant.
This is not surprising because it was Marx who first recognised that capital dispossesses and forces the vast majority of people “to sell themselves piecemeal.” and the "accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” And, as Marx also observed, 'there must be something rotten in the very core of a social system that which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery."
But observations are not enough. Marx reminded us that it is not enough to interpret the world, it must be transformed. We have a world to win.
As Jason Barker observes in his article 'Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right' published by the New York Times this week:
"The transition to a new society where relations among people, rather than capital relations, finally determine an individual’s worth is arguably proving to be quite a task. Marx, as I have said, does not offer a one-size-fits-all formula for enacting social change. But he does offer a powerful intellectual acid test for that change. On that basis, we are destined to keep citing him and testing his ideas until the kind of society that he struggled to bring about, and that increasing numbers of us now desire, is finally realized.'