Marx’s Relevance in Today’s World: A Reflection on His 200th Birthday

Several months before his death, Karl Marx is said to have declared: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” Friedrich Engels gave his interpretation of this in a letter to Conrad Schmidt on August 2, 1890. Whereas Engels called for “restudying all history,” an “imminently vast domain,” he deplored that “the empty sentences about historic materialism … serve only to produce … relatively thin historical knowledge … an artificial systematic construction, and to allow people to believe themselves endowed with great minds.”

Out of deference toward his deceased companion, in a letter on August 27 to Paul Lafargue, Engels returned to the surprising disdain of the elderly Marx for “Marxism,” recalling the disabused remark of the German writer Heinrich Heine: “I sowed dragons and reaped fleas.” Why this frayed legacy? Because declassed middle-class youth were hustling to obtain paid and rewarding positions at the head of the Social-Democrat newspapers that were proliferating in Germany, forming a sort of emerging intellectual bureaucracy.

All-Encompassing Doubt

Marx’s questioning, on the contrary, was in constant expansion, in particular during the last years of his life, a period that found him at odds with the emerging Marxism. In 1892, Engels emphasized his insatiable curiosity:

In a man who examined every thing by searching for its historic origin and the conditions of its development, a series of new questions naturally emerged from every question formulated. Prehistory, agronomy, real estate configurations in Russia and in America, geology etc., everything was grist for his mill. … Besides the Germanic and Latin-based languages that he read with ease, he undertook to study Old Church Slavonic, Russian and Serbian.

Marx’s thought constantly raised objections to which he proposed provisional responses. To grasp the scope of them, one must move beyond his early drafts and work plans. For example, the second edition of the Complete Works of Marx-Engels contains the preparatory work, the outlines and the successive versions of Capital: they fill 15 volumes comprising some 24,000 pages! Volume I represents only a small fraction of this corpus. On this basis, can one consider it, with its companion Volumes II and III, published by Engels on the basis of unfinished manuscripts, a final work?

When David Riazanov (arrested by Stalin in 1931 and executed in 1938) was entrusted by the Soviet authorities at the beginning of the 1920s to prepare a first edition of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels, and he obtained copies of the unpublished writing held by the German Social-Democrats, his plan comprised three parts: 1. miscellaneous writings; 2. the manuscripts relative to Capital; 3. the Marx-Engels correspondence. At the time, he excluded from consideration more than 200 notebooks dealing with the most varied questions. On the other hand, the second edition of the Complete Works of Marx-Engels now under way devotes a final section to these notebooks of extracts, notes and marginal annotations. This mass should make it possible to reread this work “as archaeology,” an approach that has prompted the liberation theologian Enrique Dussel to declare that “Marx is still in the future.”

The Laboratory of Latter-Day Marx

Several little known aspects of Marx’s latter-day research program clash with the image bequeathed by tradition.

1. The examination of capitalist production from the perspective of its antagonism with natural cycles: Marx described the ever greater shortfall of forestry; soil exhaustion linked to urbanization and the resulting rupture of the nutrient cycle; the limits of energy and mineral ore reserves. Regarding the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable energy, on December 9, 1882, Engels wrote to him: “The individual worker is not only a stabilizer of present solar heat, but also a waster of past solar heat. As for what we have done to waste our energy reserves, our coal, our ore, our forests etc. you are better informed than I…”

2. The study of geology led Marx to transpose the concept of “geologic formations” to the study of societies, speaking already in 1852 of “social formations,” a term that tended to replace “means of production,” which had appeared in the 1844 economic and philosophic manuscripts and was no doubt inspired by Adam Smith’s “means of subsistence.” In a preliminary version of Volume I of Capital, he thus noted: “Just as, when considering the succession different geological formations, one must not think in terms of sudden changes nor clearly delimited periods, it is the same in the creation of different economic formations of society.”

3. His interest in the mass struggles of the Sepoys of India (1857) and the peasants of Russia (1858) as well as in the Irish national question (in the latter half of the 1860s) pushed him also to consider with greater interest the resistance to “globalization” by pre-capitalist societies, first in the Russian Empire (whose language he learned at the beginning of the 1870s), then in Latin America, in Asia and in North Africa. In his discussions with Russian populists, he even imagined that the rural village, whose communal property regime was still extant, could serve as a departure point for a peasant revolution, a prelude to the socialist revolution in Western Europe.

4. In his notes on L. H. Morgan’s book, Archaic Society, he hesitates, contrary to Engels, to link the origin of male domination to the birth of private property. Putting in perspective male-female equality among the Iroquois, along with the “historic defeat of the feminine sex” in the wake of the appearance of classes, he comes across rather as attuned to inequality and forms of emerging male domination in “classless” societies.

Marx Beyond Marxism

When the elderly Marx expressed his reservations regarding emerging “Marxism,” Engels attributed them to the limits of Marx’s immediate successors. It may be that the reason was deeper and that it is to be found in the transition from Marx bearing witness as the “prophet” whose questioning never ceases to grow, to “Marxism” as a school of thought aiming to systematize a doctrine for the education of new enthusiasts. Enrique Dussel has pointed out the numerous biblical metaphors that characterize Marx’s work. For example, several month before his death, convalescing in Algeria, he confides to Engels: “I have gotten rid of my prophet’s beard … before sacrificing my full head of hair on the altar of the Algerian barber.” The last known photo of him attests to this symbolic transformation.

In what way do prophets distinguish themselves from other men? Since the third millennium before the Christian era, they have been trying to respond to new social questions posed by trade and the urban revolution. They have been seeking a response to the social injustice and the violence thus generated. For Spinoza, it is the “vigor of the imagination” that makes it possible for prophets to accede to knowledge of what may be obscure for their contemporaries, even if they cannot be ahead of their times. Marx formulated this idea in his own way: “Humanity never poses problems that it cannot resolve” because “the problem itself comes only from where the material conditions for resolving it already exist or at least are in the process of emerging.” But in turn, its solution can be validated only by the practical-critical activity of men and women.

Since the 1980s, social antagonisms have revolved around a diversity of issues — gender, race, environment, sexual orientation, national identity, etc. As David Harvey points out: “The labor force is more geographically dispersed, culturally heterogeneous, diversified as regards ethnicity and religion, racially stratified and linguistically fragmented,” making the formation of an anticapitalist block more complex. The perspective of the socialist alternative poses new problems that can incite us to reconnect with the questions of the elderly Marx. At the same time, the collapse of two major traditions — Social-Democracy and Stalinism — which (abusively) claimed to be inspired by Marx, and the inability of the movements of the 1960s to change the game, have deeply marked the regressive framework of our times, in which it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

This context requires that we distinguish more than ever the two irreconcilable well springs of socialism, as defined by Hal Draper — “from above” and “from below.” Marx, of course, envisaged the second, speaking of “self-change” (1845) and self-emancipation (1862). Nourished by the resistances to the exploitation of wage earners’ work and the accumulation by dispossession that punctuate the capitalist globalization that is under way, its future can ultimately be measured only by its practical results, which remain, when all is said and done, the only test of truth and of the power of ideas.