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KARL MARX: Man and Fighter

Humphrey McQueen

If sculpture aspires to the condition of music then Marx’s memorial in Highgate Cemetery hits a bum note.

The bust focuses on the mighty thinker about whom his lifelong comrade, Frederick Engels, began his graveside oration on 17 March 1883. 

Marx was far from a disembodied brain. ‘Nothing human is alien to me’ was one of his two mottoes. His three heroes were a defier of the gods (Prometheus), a rebel slave (Spartacus) and the mathematician who overturned our picture of the heavens (Kepler). 
 
Das Kapital
The Karl Heinrich Marx who was born on 5 May 1818 was not the Marx who writes Capital. Through 25 years of study and struggle, he had to learn how to compose his masterpiece.
 
Marx’s achievements were possible because of the strength of his wife, Jenny, their three daughters, and their housekeeper and comrade, Helen Demuth. 
 
His second motto was ‘Question everything’. He criticises even his understanding of surplus-value when he finds a case which does not quite fit his concept. 
 
No one size fits all. To argue otherwise ‘is a very impressive method,’ Marx writes, ‘for swaggering, sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness.’ For instance, India, China and Japan in the 1860s are subject to colonisers. They resisted differently, Marx shows, because of the relative strength of their state machinery. 
 
Marx taught himself Russian to gauge whether the collective labour of the Russian village (mir) could open a path onto socialism. Lenin provided the answer in The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899) as volume five of Capital.
 
Dialectics
As a dialectician, Marx sought the two-sidedness in practices and in ideas.
 
He celebrates capitalism for its revolutionising of every realm of life and reviles it for crippling workers physically and intellectually. He acknowledges religion as ‘the heart of a heartless world’ and despises the servility of its organised representatives.
 
As an historical materialist, he rejoices that our species is part of nature to the wealth of which we apply our labours. Equally, he condemns capital for plundering that wealth to survive by relentless expansion.
 
Militant
The 30 volumes of Marx’s collected writings are enough work for one lifetime. Yet he organised a succession of international working-class associations. His energies poured into independence for Poland, Ireland and India. Mourners read messages from Russia, France, Spain and Germany. His defence of the Communards in 1871 make him the best-hated man in Europe. 
 
Capital is the finest work of labour history ever penned. Some of its power comes from chapters about the working-day and co-operation. Even more significant is Marx’s revealing the dual nature of both capital and labour. Once we are forced to sell our capacities, labour becomes the pivotal form of capital by adding more value than goes into its own production. 
 
Marx accepts greed as one more human characteristic. But it is exacerbated by capital’s relentless need to realise a profit by inculcating wants to absorb more of its over-production.
 
By contrast, capitalists are caught in a Faustian bargain between pleasure and accumulation. Too much fun and they lose their right to live off our labour.
 
Science
Writing about the past becomes a science only from the 1840s when Marx and Engels initiate historical materialism. They welcome Darwin for putting paid to claims that the world has been created to fulfill some purpose outside itself. 
 
Marx keeps Capital a work of science by penetrating surfaces to derive critical analyses of inner dynamics. Change is the sole constant. Hence, concepts must be jettisoned along with the social practices to which they had approximated.
 
Marx was fascinated with the calculus: how could an aggregation of quantitative changes result in a qualitative transformation. His most favoured term is ‘metamorphosis’.
 
Struggle
Capital can help us to understand UBER and Wall Street; robots and the Building and Construction Commission; global warming and the surge in Fundamentalisms. We can gain those insights only by uncovering ‘how exactly?’ in each case. 
 
Marx ties his concepts to immediate demands as with the ten points in the Manifesto. Australian revolutionaries do so around the five pillars of everyday life: housing, transport, work, health and education. 
 
The four volumes of Capital are a quest for the mechanisms behind systemic crises. They are inevitable. Capitalism will never collapse of its own accord. That demands revolutionary action. Only living breathing human beings can make and re-make our possible futures.
 
Revolution
Marx learnt that a revolution needs more than a rise in the price of bread. The past 250 years show that challenges to state power are rare.  Even less common is success at smashing the previous state apparatuses.
 
Russia and China demonstrate that carrying a successful revolution through to socialism is several times harder. We must learn from those failures as Marx did from the fate of the Commune.
 
Capitalism is haunted not by the spectre of Marx but by its own conflicting drives. He provides us with the means to understand them. With Engels, he developed a science which situates the prospects for a far better world on more than wish-fulfillment.
 
A cable of his death appeared in the Australian press. The 1887 English translation of Capital sparked a spat among the local bourgeoisie about the exploitative nature of the wage-labour relationship. By 1907, that truth had gripped militants. With the formation of a Communist Party in 1920, the International to which Marx gave so much of his life flourished as never before. 
 
The movement stands Marx’s true memorial.

 

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