Tuesday, May 29, 2012



A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – March 2012

A pleasant consequence of being an unemployed bum (oops, sorry, mature student) is the possibility it affords for erudite but pointless discussion. One such was about which author was most known more than actually read. The champion was, you guessed it, Salman Rushdie. I for one have made many assaults on his books and don’t think I have survived more than twenty pages on any one except ‘Shalimar the Clown’, which I managed to plough through thanks to an avid interest in Kashmir. The reason, according to one of the discussants (who claims to have read Rushdie), is not that I am too stupid but that I don’t have an understanding of ‘magic realism’, whatever that is.

But, I digress! This note is actually about the runner up, Karl Marx, possibly the most divisive figure in the history of humankind. We all know him and have our opinions (and I have no intention of attempting to change them), many of us can quote him, and some can even expound on him, but few of us have actually read him. Knowing something about Marx’s work, and being able to discuss it, has its uses. It can convey a dimension of intelligence and/or sensitivity to one’s personality – useful as a means of blindsiding women/men one is looking to impress. It can also irritate – I managed to make myself unpopular at a World Bank training (the kind you want to be unpopular in – full of paternalistic assholes who’ve never faced a community and who’ve divided the world into the enlightened ‘us’ and the unwashed ‘them’) by quoting the line ‘unemployment is the luxury of the bourgeoisie’ – I was later informally informed that Marx is an unmentionable in those haloed quarters. And it can help to advise young people who don’t want to become software engineers or MBAs and have a bit of revolutionary fire in their eyes – that what’s said about Marx and Marxism may not be what Marx said.

So, what did Marx actually say? I will confine this note to his writings in his younger days, in his twenties, mainly because of the sheer volume and variety of his output and the difficulty in pigeonholing him into any particular subject. He is seen as one of the three most influential sociologists of all time (along with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim), but his writing spanned economics, and political science as well, and his PhD was in philosophy – a subject upon which he famously said ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.’ And also because his thinking changed as he grew older, from the young radical on the run from the authorities across Europe to the older radical bringing up his family in penury in London.

A short word about the Europe of Marx’s time, a world of Kings and Tsars and Kaisers looking to ruthlessly protect and preserve class and national interests against those of a burgeoning business class and a teeming proletariat. It reads a bit like Mubarak’s Egypt, or Assad’s Syria, or the Uzbekistan of today.

A little about the young Marx himself, as well! He was born in 1818 to a prosperous family in Trier, a beautiful little town in the wine-growing Moselle valley in Germany that I happen to have cycled through in 1991 (and imbibed a fair bit of that wine). Trier at that time was part of Prussia, and Marx’s father converted to Christianity in order to practice law, which as a Jew he was forbidden to do. The family also owned some of the vineyards around Trier, and Marx’s mother was from a rich Dutch-Jewish family that later went on to found Phillips Electronics. Marx himself received a secular education and was sent off to the University of Bonn where he wanted to study philosophy and literature and where his father insisted he study the more practically oriented law. He was fond of boozing and socializing, and joined a drinking society in Bonn (and later served as its co-President), and his poor grades had his father force him to transfer to the far more academically inclined University of Berlin, where the excursions into philosophy and history began. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with a beautiful baroness of the Prussian ruling class, Jenny von Westphalen, described as ‘the most desirable young lady in Trier’, who broke off her engagement with an aristocratic Prussian Army officer to marry him. His doctoral thesis of 1841, “The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”, a daring and original piece of work that suggested that theology must yield to the superior wisdom of philosophy, was controversial among the conservative professors of the University of Berlin. Marx decided to submit it to the more liberal University of Jena instead, whose faculty awarded him a PhD based upon it. He then looked for an academic job, didn’t find one , and turned instead to writing.

I will now focus on four works that he wrote before the age of 27, i.e. when he was at the age of many post-graduate students here at IRMA.

On the Jewish Question – 1843: In this text, Marx introduces the distinction between political emancipation (or the grant of liberal rights and liberties) and human emancipation. He argues that political emancipation is insufficient to bring about human emancipation, and it is also a barrier towards this. Liberal rights and ideas of justice are premised on the idea that each of us needs protection from other human beings; liberal rights are rights of separation, and freedom is a freedom from interference. Marx suggests that real freedom is to be found positively in our relations with other people, in communities, not in isolation. Insisting on a regime of rights encourages us to view each other in ways that may undermine the real freedom to be found in human emancipation. Marx did not oppose political emancipation, seeing it as a great improvement over the prejudice and discrimination of the Germany of his day, but did feel that it must be transcended on the route to human emancipation. Marx does not, in this text, say what human emancipation is, and we can only assume that it is related to the idea of un-alienated labour of future texts.

Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Introduction – 1843: This is the one that describes Marx’s views on religion in most detail, and is famous for the remark that religion is the ‘opiate of the people’. It also considers how revolution might be achieved in Germany, and sets out the role of the proletariat in bringing about societal emancipation.

An earlier viewpoint (Feuerbach, et al) opposing theology was that human beings had created God in their own image, and that worshipping God diverted humans from enjoying their own powers. Marx criticised this, saying that religion is a response to alienation in material life – alienation of labour from their work and alienation of people from their communities. Religion deviously promotes a false idea of community in which we are all equal in the eyes of God, and the state offers the illusion of a community in which we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Both state and religion can be transcended when a genuine community of social and economic equals is created. How can such a society be brought about? Marx suggests that it has to be through self-transforming action by the proletariat. Indeed, if they do not create the revolution for themselves (if enlightened philanthropy, for example, brings about change instead), they will not be fit to receive it.

Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts – 1844: This text is most famous for its description of the way labour is alienated under the capitalist system. Marx suggests four forms of alienation. First, from the product, which is taken away from the producer upon its creation. Second, in productive activity (or work), which is seen as a torment. Third, from their own powers, as they produce blindly and not in accordance with their skills and inclinations. And fourth, from other humans, with a relationship of exchange replacing the satisfaction of mutual need. Non-alienated labour, on the other hand, comes about when the immediate producer enjoys a product as a confirmation of his/her powers, and with the idea that production meets the needs of others so that both parties have a human essence of mutual dependence – individual human powers and membership in the human community.

For Marx, alienation is not merely a matter of subjective feeling, or confusion. And there is a sense of inevitability about it, given the tenets of capitalism. As long as a capitalist intends to stay in business, he must ruthlessly exploit his workers to the legal limit whether or not he is wracked by guilt. The worker must take the best job on offer; there is no other sane option. By doing these, they reinforce the very structures that oppress. The urge to transcend this, and to take collective control of destiny, is important in Marx’s social analysis.

Theses on Feuerbach – 1845: This is a compilation of Marx’s reaction to the philosophy of his day. He compliments materialism for understanding the physical reality of the world, and criticizes it for ignoring the active role of the human subject in creating it. And idealism is said to understand the active nature of the human subject, but confines it to thought or contemplation – creating categories upon which we can impose the world. Marx combines these insights to propose a view that human beings do indeed create, or at least transform, the world they find themselves in, but this transformation happens not in thought but through actual material activity. This historical version of materialism is the foundation of Marx’s theory of history.


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thanks, Ajit. Once again, crisply brilliant!!

Sunil Kaul

Girish Menon said...

An interesting insight into Marx and his initial thinking for those uninitiated like me- as always, a piece that is a brilliant mix of facts, analysis and insights making it eminently readable, enriching and informative. Well done and thank you Chau !