“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”: Karl Marx (5.5.1818-14.3.1883) had reached this conclusion quite early in his life when he was still in his late twenties. Till his last breath he worked relentlessly to this end, producing the richest and most inspiring legacy of human endeavour geared towards both comprehending and transforming the world we live in. From the Communist Manifesto, jointly produced with his lifelong comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels in 1848, when he was only thirty, to his magnum opus Das Kapital (Capital), which was published in full only after his death, Marx remained steadfast in his spirit of ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ – ‘ruthless’, as he said, ‘both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and … of conflict with the powers that be’!
This spirit of ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ and the indomitable resolve to change the world put Marx in conflict with most governments of his day. Exiled from several countries of Europe he eventually made London his home. In those days, London was also the capital of the world’s most advanced capitalist country and the biggest colonial power in the world. Sitting in London, Marx immersed himself not only in study, research and writing but also in promoting revolutionary working class movements across the world and building international solidarity among them. He played the central role in launching the first international organization of the working class (the International Working Men’s Association) and developing it as a united platform of several ideological streams active in the international working class movement during those formative years. From the anti-colonial revolt of 1857 in India to the Paris Commune of 1871, he keenly watched, analyzed and encouraged the stirrings for freedom and socialism in every part of the world.
In his study of society Marx treated the classes as the central actors and their struggles as the core drivers of social development. The classes that rule in a society do so not only by their control over resources and material production but also over the state and its laws and repressive machinery and the realm of mental production or the production and regulation of ideas. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force,” wrote Marx in his celebrated work ‘The German Ideology’ way back in 1845. The Marxist framework of class struggle thus challenges the domination of the ruling class from every angle – economic and political and also social, cultural and intellectual.
The ruling idea in the era of capitalism is the idea that mystifies capital as something eternal and natural, magical and invincible, that glorifies the bourgeoisie or the capitalist class as the most civilized class, and bourgeois rule as the most superior and democratic. All through his writings Marx tore apart this mask, analyzing every contradiction that challenges this claim of bourgeois rule being natural, permanent and supreme, laying bare the hitherto unknown laws of motion of capital that inevitably lead to periodic crises, and exposing every hypocrisy that seeks to sell bondage as freedom, war as peace, plunder as prosperity, devastation as development. It was through this actual motion of existing social forces and this constant battle of ideas – and not on the basis of some abstract principles or utopian dreams – that Marx visualized humanity’s march towards socialism and communism, towards complete human emancipation.
During his lifetime and since his death, time and again Marx has been declared irrelevant and obsolete. But every time he has come back, with every successive generation discovering some new light in his writings, helping it to try and understand and overcome the problems of the day. For bourgeois triumphalists who believed they had finally managed to bury the ideas of Marx with the collapse of the Soviet Union, history proved a cruel teacher. No sooner had they proclaimed the end of history, than global capitalism encountered a massive shock. Dogged by the most protracted and severest crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, today even bourgeois thinkers are once again returning to Marx to make sense of the present state of chaos and churning.
While Marx is widely known, respected and studied by large sections of progressive and thinking Indians across ideological streams, he is also widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Both apologists and opponents of colonialism argue that Marx had seen British colonialism as a progressive intervention of history in a stagnant and backward India. There can perhaps be a no bigger misreading and misrepresentation of Marx’s views about India. Marx was very clear that capital did not operate only in the apparently legally regulated environment of capitalist countries; he was very much alive to the reality of colonial plunder and violent accumulation of capital from across the world, which in fact had created the conditions for capitalism to emerge. He was keenly aware that “If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Capital, Volume one, Chapter 31: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist).
In the specific context of India, Marx was a trenchant critic of the barbarity of British colonial rule, its loot and torture, clearly acknowledging that “the misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had to suffer before…The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” – Marx wrote this in June 1853 in his dispatch “The British Rule in India” for the New York Herald Tribune. At the same time, for Marx, the village communities in India were no idyllic islands of peace and prosperity, rather they were contaminated by the distinctions of ‘caste and slavery’, and castes were “decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power”.
He was clear that “All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people,” and he wrote this in July 1853 when the British rulers were claiming credit for the launch of the railways in India as a revolutionary development. In the same dispatch titled “The Future Results of British Rule in India”, Marx went on to argue that “The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Indians themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” Marx thus posits the question of complete Indian independence in July 1853, four years before sections of Indians rose in revolt to wage India’s first war of independence.
It is also often heard that Marx despised religion as ‘opium of the masses’ and called for a ban on all religions. This again is a selective simplification, if not a mischievous misrepresentation, of Marx’s ideas on religion. The expression ‘opium of the people’ comes at the end of a paragraph which reads thus: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Marxism has therefore always focused on changing that ‘heartless world’ and its ‘soulless conditions’, and insisted on treating religion as a matter for the individual, strictly separating it from the state and public affairs administered by the state.
As we observe the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, we are being ruled in India by a bunch of the most bigoted and obscurantist rulers who seek to address ideological debates through hate, lies and violence. Only the other day, heady with arrogance following their surprise victory in Tripura, they bulldozed statues of Lenin calling him a foreign icon unrelated to India. They will say the same thing about Marx. These are the people who invite foreign companies to come and plunder India’s resources, who kowtow to Trump as the supreme ruler of the world and if we go back in history we find their ideological forefathers collaborating all through with the British colonial rulers.
And in order not to be misled by this silly distinction of whether an idea or an intellectual is of Indian origin or foreign, we must always remember that the RSS has always idolised foreign icons. Incidentally, the icon they worshipped was another German called Adolf Hitler. And these people, who oppose Marx and Lenin, also oppose Ambedkar and Periyar. Clearly, it is not about the origin of the idea, but the idea itself which is the real bone of contention. All who stand and fight for equality and justice, liberty and fraternity will always feel inspired by Marx while the enemies of equality will always remain mortally afraid of this revolutionary giant. More power to the ideas and legacy of Marx!
Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession, 1835
“… the chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection. It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict, that one would have to destroy the other; on the contrary, man's nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men.
“If he works only for himself, he may perhaps become a famous man of learning, a great sage, an excellent poet, but he can never be a perfect, truly great man.
History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy; religion itself teaches us that the ideal being whom all strive to copy sacrificed himself for the sake of mankind, and who would dare to set at nought such judgments?
“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”