Neither Marx nor his contemporaries would ever have believed that his name would survive for 200 years. For his entire life, he had been known only in limited revolutionary and activist circles. His journalism and published works reached only a small audience. By the 1860s his works had not been in print for twenty years. He had hoped that Capital, published in 1867, would sell enough to liberate him from his lifelong, grinding, poverty. But only 1,000 copies were sold in five years in Germany. His funeral in 1883 was attended by 11 persons.
But he left a vast treasure of learning. Only in their twenties, both Marx and Engels wrote works which made little mass impact at the time, but which have become vastly important in the history of ideas. The most famous of them, now the most recognised political tract of all time, the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, is still revelatory of capitalism’s contradictions and its trajectory (Yanus Varouflakis “Marx predicted the present crisis and points the way out” April 20 2018). Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ and Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England,’ both published in 1844, were to become important classics in the nineteenth century discourse on political economy. Other major publications by Marx include The German Ideology (1845), The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), The Eighteenth Braumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1850), Contribution to Critique of Political Economy (1859), Capital Vol 1 (1867) and dozens more.
While Marx’s major preoccupations were activism and journalism, from which he eked out a bare existence, both dedicated to the struggle against European autocracy, his theoretical work embraced philosophy, social theory and, of course, what he called “political economy.” Marx argued that the creation of surplus and the accumulation of capital generated a struggle for the control of material resources. This was accompanied by the growth of class and class antagonism as well as an ideology which justified the retention and use of those resources for further accumulation. He suggested that once the contradictions are sufficiently exacerbated and the ideological framework, sustaining the system loses its potency, radical transformation forces itself on the agenda.
The liberation of Marxism from the intellectual straightjacket of Sovietism, which may have been inspired by Marxism but had nothing to do with it because Marx laid no blueprint for socialism, together with the eruption of the business cycles of capitalism, have led to a resurgence of the serious study of Marx over the past quarter century. Marxism has always been, but is now more accepted, as a respected intellectual and academic discipline among scholars who are not themselves Marxists. Dozens of books have been written and hundreds remain to be written. Some of Marx’s conclusions, including history’s inexorable march, are being utilized more frequently by non-Marxists to assist in understanding the behavior of capitalism, its future and society in general.
It is to be noted that Marx examined nineteenth century capitalism with which we would be entirely unfamiliar today even though child labour, slavery and gross exploitation still exists in many parts of the world. The face of capitalism, factory driven, with father, mother and children in the factory at the same time, as in the nineteenth century, no longer exists. The evidence of capitalism’s growth and its further potential was visible at the time of Marx and he recognized it in the Communist Manifesto. But even he did not anticipate the spectacular productive capacity and scientific achievements of capitalism, which made possible high social benefits and lifted billions of people out of poverty and continue to do.
However, he would not have been surprised at capitalism’s most enduring feature – its continuing contradictions, its drive to extract surplus value, with the growing share of wealth of the one percent amidst rising inequality, exacerbated in the US by the recent tax heist. Neither would he have been surprised at the world wars that they engendered, or the recessions of the 1930s and 2008 that they triggered. He would have expected opposition to neoliberal solutions, the deleterious effects of globalisation, and their negative impact on the disadvantaged all over the world. Faced with a capitalism that has expanded beyond his expectations and continues to innovate, and a working class that no longer exists in the developed world in the traditional sense, he would not have been surprised at new forces entering into the new forms of struggle – feminism, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy, environment, Windrush and many more. He will be optimistic that the struggle against the negative aspects of capitalism will result in its benefits spreading to further reduce and even eliminate poverty, until its contradictions are resolved by future generations in a manner that does not disrupt society.
“A revival of his ideas is in full swing in the capitalist west…Marx’s Das Capital is climbing back into the best seller charts and a raft of biographies and TV dramas celebrate the enduring relevance of his ideas.” (Guardian: May 5). Marx’s character has also been the subject of much speculation. What kind of man was he? He was described as having “megalomania” and an “egotist.” His monumental insults in the most caustic language to many of his contemporaries showed little restraint. He was not a great public speaker and limited his public speaking engagements, perhaps because of a lisp, and/or a heavily accented English. But Francis Wheen in his book “Karl Marx,” “humanised a figure diminished for much of the last 100 years,” painting a picture of a “lovable old rogue,” describing his drunken frolics in London and the painful abscesses on his buttocks that forced him to sometimes stand while working and writing in the British Library.
“Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution” by Mary Gabriel, is a page-turning account of his work, with the background of a poignant love story of a 19th century family – a traditional, caring father and loving husband, a devoted wife, to whom Marx was nevertheless unfaithful, and talented children, all beset by horrific poverty as well as great tragedy in the loss of a beloved son and brother, nine years old, from which it is said that Marx never fully recovered. In the midst of all of this, Marx’s creative impulses continued to drive and dominate his existence until his death.