Our unforgettable today is Karl Marx.
He was an activist, economist, journalist, writer and philosopher. Just like Christianity is used to describe the teachings of and faith in Jesus Christ, the term “Marxism” is used to describe a set of social, political and economic philosophies conceived by Fredrick Engels and Karl Marx. Unlike Jesus Christ, who “merely” warned and predicted that many will come in my name to lead many astray, Karl Marx lived to denounce some Marxists in 1883, by saying “what is certain is that [if they are Marxists], [then] I am not a Marxist”).
Karl Marx was born in Trier, then Prussia now Germany on the 5th of May 1818. He was born into a Jewish family that had produced a series of Rabbis, generation after generation from both his paternal and maternal lineage. His parents were however non-religious Jews. The mother Henriette Marx (nee Pressburg) was born into a wealthy and well-known family of merchants. His father, Heinrich (born Herschel) Marx was a classic liberal, a lawyer highly influenced by the thoughts and writings of Kant and Voltaire that converted from Judaism to Christianity. Henrich Marx was active in the fight against absolute monarchism for a constitutional monarchy in Prussia. Yes, Karl Marx was born into and grow up on a diet of ideas and rebellion; he was not just a theorist, he was a vocal activist whose activism caused his expulsion from many countries. He died stateless in London in March 1883 and was buried in North London. By 2018, when Karl Marx’s 200th posthumous birthday was celebrated, a fee was charged to visit his graveyard and over one thousand visitors per day from all over the world paid for the privilege of visiting Karl Marx’s grave.
Karl Marx was for over two centuries, one of the most cited, thinkers in the world. It must be said here that a lot of those that cited him had not read him: their knowledge was secondary and interpreted. In 1996, a study conducted at the University of Perugia in Italy showed that only 3 out of 1000 people that quoted Marx or considered themselves as Marxists had never read Karl Max. His most known ideas come from his major publications which include “The Communist Manifesto” written together with Fredrich Engels and published in 1848 with the original title Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, and “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy published in September 1867 with the original title “Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie”. Fredrich Engels is one of the names that made it to our list of The Unforgettables; besides his personal life and intellectual offerings, two things about Engels are worthy of note: his contribution to the theory of socialism and how little is said and taught about him. Both factors say a lot about general education and humanity as a whole.
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels laid the foundations for the socialist and communist programmatic proclamation of the 19th and 20th Centuries. These include 10 important goals: Abolishing ownership of all private property, Establishing a system of heavy taxation, Abolishing the right to inherit, Centralizing credit and establishing a state bank, Centralizing communication and transport with the state, Confiscating all emigrant and rebel property, Extending the means of production to the state, Equalizing liability to all levels of labour, Combining agriculture and manufacturing industries and Establishing a free public education system. All that is politics, they are above all introduced us to the materialistic conception of history: We are presented with an appraisal of the history of humanity from the feudal age to the 19th Century.
Marx with Engels shows us that contrary to what we thought so far, history and the rise and fall of empires are not about great men, their ambition vices or virtues, or great ideas, fate or fortune because “society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand” and that what shapes history is the mode of production and the relationship between the factors of production. These factors we are shown are in continuous, sometimes violent, conflict with each other and what we believe, think, love, defend or fight depends on our social conditions and position in the productive chain. They argued that the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life and that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”.
Based on the assumption that history is continuous progress propelled by the mode of production, Marx and Engels argued that just as Capitalist took over from the feudalists who took over from hunters and gatherers before them, the working class will take over from capitalists one day once they developed class consciousness and they invited the workers of the world to unite. It is not possible to overstate how radical these views were and their import to contemporary thinking then and even now. Suffice to say for his radical views Marx was not granted any teaching position in academia, mind you, not because his views were seen as wrong then but simply because they were seen as dangerous.
It is plausible to argue that we know today about capital and indeed capitalism was first articulated by Karl Marx. He certainly was the first economist and social theorist to use the term “capitalist”; he used derogatory terms though. In a sharp departure, from his contemporaries, Marx presents the capitalist as the factor of production that exploits labour to generate surplus value. Marx’s ideas were based on the labour theory of value. He reasoned that if it is true that it was a labour that added value to a product and that if a product is more expensive because more labour had been put into it then the only way capitalist could be getting profit was either by underpaying or overworking their labourer.
Marx saw capitalism as a system of exploitation of the many, with nothing, by the few owners of the means of production, aided by the state. He argued that such a system was not sustainable and had to end and will be replaced by a socialist system wherein the state, heavily present, will redistribute and control the means of production not towards returns for the few but for the benefit of the many. This of course contradicts the behavioural economic system that allows for ambition, flaws, and eccentricity and more importantly to have such a society, a new order is required. Such order had to be managed by the most knowledgeable and dedicated.
Karl Marx never held any office but in more than a few countries, many people tried to gain power and indeed rule in his name. Karl Marx is perhaps the only philosopher in whose image people have tried to create kingdoms.
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Prof Anthony Kila is Centre Director at CIAPS Lagos.