Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Perennial Student, Karl Marx

Marx – the perennial student

Completed reading a short biography of Karl Marx by Paul Strathern
This thin 55 page booklet gave me a lot of hitherto unknown facts about Marx of whom I first learnt in my history lessons when in class VIII.
Let me share them here.

Marx was born to a Jew family in German provincial city of Trier on May 5, 1818. Trier is (or was?) known for its vineyards. His father, Hirschel was a successful lawyer who himself owned couple of vineyards and he converted to Christianity. Marx’s Uncle founded the today’s well known Dutch company Philips.
One of Marx’s habits was to force his sisters eat mud pies!
Marx was sent to University of Berlin to read law but he ended up with philosophy. He was influenced maximum by Hegel in philosophy but influenced as being against him in interpretation besides having a major influence of German humanist philosopher and moralist Ludwig Feuerbach. Marx’s doctoral thesis extolled Prometheus – the ancient Greek hero who stole fire from the gods and brought it down to humanity and for his punishment he was chained to a rock in Caucasus where an eagle would return each day to peck out his ever-renewing liver. The Greek translation of Prometheus means “he who sees, or thinks, the future”.

Marx found his first job as a journo in Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland Times). He was very successful and was promoted to be the editor within one year! He married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen who came from aristocratic family. People do wonder why an enchanting Jenny would marry a scruffy young Jewish hell-raiser who was four years junior to him!

Marx moved to Paris where he met Friedrich Engel and the friendship continued till the deathbed. Engel was the only friend with whom Marx never quarreled. And for his part, Engel worshipped Marx. Both Marx and Engel moved to Brussels and joined the newly formed Communist League. They were given the task of writing a manifesto for the league. Their writing was the first origin of Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Marx offered a list of reforms for the capitalism like the progressive income tax, abolition of child labor, and free education for children.

The Manifesto ends with its celebrated call to arms:
‘Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletariat has nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Suddenly the two friends astonished the Communist League by turning their backs to them and returning to Rhineland where Marx took up the job of being an editor for Neue Rheinische Zeitung. And his writings there where against revolution and surprised all his friends. He now held the view that working class should collaborate with the democratic bourgeoisie if anything worthwhile is to be achieved. But this shift was short-lived as when in 1848 the assembly of Prussia was dissolved, Marx again jumped to advocating armed resistance to such suspension of democratic rights. He was arrested but his arguments in the trial were so cogent that he gained such popular feeling that he was unanimously acquitted, and even thanked by the jury, amidst a cheering courtroom.

Despite his nominal regular income, Marx kept asking and receiving financial aid from Engel.

By 1859 Marx completed first full scale work, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. His philosophy was based on following analysis: Social life is founded on economic life, upon how things are produced within a society. Social relations are based on economic relations. Above these rises a corresponding superstructure of laws and social consciousness which reflects the economic structure. In this way the theological and intellectual life of a society is entirely determined by the way things are produced within it.

Marx termed the newly discovered idea of division of labor as destructive. As per him when the workers were reduced to continuous repetition of a single, mind-deadening task, they lost any meaningful relationship with the product they were helping to create. Instead of being creative artisans, they became dehumanized drudges.
Along with this, concepts like Private property, profits, and capitalism was dealt in length by Marx in his massive masterwork, Das capital (Capital) published in 1867.
Das capital investigates the mechanisms of economics against the background of the nineteenth century Britain which was most advanced industrial economy in the world and indicated future.

According to Marx, capitalism was basically unjust. It relied upon the exploitation of the workers, because the capitalists owned the means of production: the machinery, the tools and so forth. A cotton bale arrived at the factory door and left as garments which could be sold for a higher price. In this way the worker added value to the goods but he was not paid the full value that he added. Marx was a firm believer in the labor theory of value – a product has real value which could be calculated according to the amount of labor that had gone into its production.
For Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat was only the first phase as this would be followed by utopia. The struggle between the classes will be replaced by a classless society. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Marx died in 1883 at the age of 64. A dozen friends and fellow believers gathered at the graveside on that cold March morning in Highgate cemetery. They listened as Engel delivered what then would have seemed to most a hopelessly overblown funeral oration, “His name and work will endure through the ages…”
Little did they know that in less than seventy years later, a third of the world would claim to be run according to Marx’s ideas.


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