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Full Marx to Mamata; Why we need to cut Marxism to size

Mamata Banerjee’s effort to cut Marx down to size is bang on. Left circles, and an ill-informed media commentariat, may scream blue murder about attempts to “rewrite history” but the fact is Karl Marx and Communism need to be subjected to the same critical processes of re-evaluation as Marx himself did with his reinterpretation of history.

But let’s get one thought out of the way first: what is being attempted in Bengal is not a complete erasure of Marxism from higher secondary history books, but a serious scaling up of other ideas that shaped our world. This is a vital corrective. Under Left Front rule, Marx loomed larger than life in academic textbooks (for obvious political reasons), to the near exclusion of other ideas from history.

The Times of India quotes Avik Mazumdar, chairman of the syllabus reforms committee, as denying any attempt to ban Marx from the classroom. "It is a complete misconception that we are doing away with Marxist movements or communism from history. We have only suggested including democratic movements, invasions by various explorers and 20th century history. We have brought in Latin America, China, as well as various movements in India. Also, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been included, given their significance in the post-1947 era."

While we should wait to see what finally transpires, is it not time to downsize Marx in the context of the failure of Marxism almost everywhere in the world. Marx is not the messiah we once thought he was.

Religion may be the opium of the masses, but over the last 100 years or more, Marx has been the opium of the intelligentsia. No serious attempt has been made to deconstruct Marxism even after the consecutive failures of all Marxist regimes in history – from Soviet Russia to Communist China to Pol Pot and various other versions of Marx in Asia, Africa and Latin America. All of them invariably were murderous regimes that conducted genocides on their own people – especially dissidents.

Marxism’s worst enemies, however, are not the capitalists, but its own supporters who have converted the ideas of Marx and Engels into religious dogma and The Communist Manifesto into The Book. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the tradition of Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which is Marx’s cultural background - where there can be only one God (usually a historical figure) and one book – the book. Any deviation from it is heresy.

But before we come to demolishing his ideas, it is worth pondering over why Marx has captured the imagination of so many worldwide thinkers. I believe it starts from a fundamentally beguiling and simple ideal: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Mamata Banerjee’s effort to cut Marx down to size is bang on. AFP

This statement is so simple and profound that it is almost impossible for anyone to have serious problems with it as an ideal. In fact, the core principles of any religion or ethical system are always simple and can usually be boiled down to such statements. Which is where their power lies.

I am no expert on comparative religions, but I believe the essential principles of various religions are always simple – and that is why they take root. The driving principle of Christianity is love and concern for the less fortunate; the core idea of Islam is justice and brotherhood; the central idea of Hinduism is dharma (or duty) and pluralism (respect from many truths). Jainism is about non-violence (ahimsa) and Buddhism is about acceptance of suffering, right conduct, and adjusting your mind to respond differently to what life throws at you.

I am not trying to be reductionist in the way I describe these religions, but am on the point that at the heart of any ideology, any ideal, any moral or ethical system, is a simple idea that is very easy to grasp. That is their power and their appeal.

Marxism’s appeal, thus, lies not in Karl Marx’s voluminous interpretations of history or the Communist Manifesto, but in the ideal: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Even Gandhi, who was opposed to Marxism’s soullessness, talked about how the world had enough for everyone’s need, but not their greed. His ideas on trusteeship capitalism – where business holds wealth as a trustee for the poor - would accord well with the phrase above.

The problem with any religious or temporal ideal is never the fundamental principle that underlies them, but how mere mortals are going to put that into practice.

This is where Marx and Marxism went wrong. (A caveat: I have used Marx and Marxist ideas developed by Engels and other early exponents like Lenin synonymously.)

Karl Marx was without doubt the best interpreter of the forces that shaped western history, but as a writer of a guidebook for the future of society, he was a colossal failure. Every one of his followers – from Lenin to Stalin to Mao and Pol Pot and Fidel Castro – has failed to produce even a slice of that glorious future one would have expected from an ideology like Marxism.

So what are Marx’s egregious errors?

First, he made the basic mistake of trying to predict the future by looking at the past. It’s like trying to drive by looking into the rearview mirror. In fact, writers of biographies and success stories also fall into the same trap: they use an established success to post-facto figure out why they succeeded and then proceed to draw conclusions from it. We know Microsoft and Apple have succeeded, but to derive general formulas for future success from their success can only lead to failure. Each success is its own story.

Marx was an early victim of this fallacy of trying to explain tomorrow from what happened yesterday. He was superb in explaining how feudal societies transform into capitalist ones, and how the contradiction between labour and capital could lead to conflicts, but there is no way he could have predicted how this conflict would play out in future. He assumed that capitalists cannot adapt. The modern welfare state is one adaptation that reduces the conflict – and that is why capitalism has survived while communism did not.

The second egregious mistake Marx made – as Peter Drucker pointed out – was to explain the capital-labour conflict in terms of the worker’s alienation from his tools. The tools on the assembly line and in modern factories are owned by the capitalist, and this is what alienates a worker from capitalism. However, Marx clearly could not envision the advent of the knowledge economy, where the knowledge worker owns the tools of his trade – and not the capitalist. It’s all in his head – and the capitalist’s real problem today is figure out how to retain the worker who can move with his tools to do his own thing.

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The third problem with Marx is that he forgot Hegel: that every proposition contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Communism contained that seed - the inability to self-correct. Capitalism still has that ability to change course. This is why capitalism has been with us longer than Communism.

Given the current crisis in capitalism (in the US and Europe), Marxists are hoping that this will revive interest in Communism or Socialism, but they could not be more wrong. They wrongly assume that capitalism is the opposite of Marxism. It is not.

Capitalism is not an ideology at all, never mind what its protagonists think. It does not say what is right or what is wrong. It does not seek to predict the future or prescribe the path to it.

Capitalism is, in fact, a mechanism, an engine. It is a system that spews out and uses information – prices – to let people take decisions. It works when the actors in an economy can get information on demand and supply through prices. It doesn’t work when it is difficult to represent the price in a simple format.

For example, the complicated derivative instruments created by Wall Street to transfer risks out of one’s own balance-sheet led us directly to the Lehman crisis. Nobody could figure out the risks involved. Similarly, we are unable to figure out the right price for fossil fuels since we don’t know the real damage it may be causing to future generations through pollution. Once we are able to figure it out, capitalism would ensure green thinking too.

Capitalism works because it creates and uses information. It is capable of self-correction and self-regulation when the information is right because it is not an ideology. Adam Smith may have written a book on it, and some capitalists may have converted it into a belief system, but capitalism is not a religion.

The problem people have with capitalism is that it is amoral – it is value-neutral. But it is society’s job to give capitalism its values. It is entirely possible for capitalism to try and give shape to the Marxist ideal of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

All you need to do is structure the incentive and penalty systems in the economy to ensure this happens. I am not saying this is what we should attempt to do, but that an engine’s job is to provide the power to take you where you want to go. It cannot tell you if it is the right place to go.

Marx’s contributions to the world of ideas are limited to his explanation of historical forces, and give us a nice ideal to keep in mind for the future. But one should not presume he knew how to get there.

It is time to put him in his place. Mamata Banerjee’s is one such effort. But many more efforts are needed by intellectuals wearing rose-tinted glasses while evaluating Marx’s place in history.

While the reasons for Mamata's antipathy to Marx may be the Marxists she has to deal with in Bengal, a broader analysis could well prove that he was just a minor prophet in mankind’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment.


Updated Date: Apr 07, 2012 14:29 PM

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