Saturday, May 05, 2018

Karl Marx at 200 #Marx200

May 5 isn't just Cinco de Mayo in the United States. This year, it's also the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birth. Which has been the occasion for a number of what-is-Marx's-relevance-now feature stories.

I've never had a phobia here at this blog talking about Marxism and some of the effectively infinite number of issues related to it. Like my posts last year on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

But I've had a hard time thinking of anything to say on the topping that seems to fit meaningfully into a 200th-anniversary observance.

When I attended business graduate school and a Jesuit university, literally my first homework assignment included readings from Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Because both in substance and symbolism, those two represent the classic justification for the capitalist system in Smith's case and the classic critique of it in Marx's.

The now-common term capitalism was not in wide usage until the second half of the 19th century. The OED Third Edition (March 2012) cites an English usage as early as 1833, but it was in very restricted use prior to that. So, ironically, from today's viewpoint, the most iconic theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith, didn't actually use the term "capitalism."

But I'm going to make some attempt, anyway.

Here is Marx' birth house in Trier, Germany in 2014 (from Von Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It is currently the Museum Karl-Marx-Haus run by the SPD-associated Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. It has a Twitter account, of course: @marx2018. They are opening a new exhibit there on May 5 for the 200th birthday.

Sam Seder recently interviewed Richard Wolff on Why It's Cool To Talk About Marxism Again The Majority Report 03/24/2018:

Any description of a broad subject like the enduring significance of a 19th-century thinker has to perate from some kind of framework of the various historical settings for the reception. Marx very directly affected the early Social Democratic movement in Europe. There was a major split in the movement over the First World War and a more consequential one in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which produced distinct and competing "brands" of Communism and Social Democracy.

With the founding of the Soviet Union, the reception of Marx began decades in which state propaganda and counter-propaganda mixed with political activism and scholarship in shaping the Marx reception in all parts of the world. The broad post-World War II trend that came to be known as Western Marxism gave a great deal of attention to the problem of why the capitalist system in the advanced countries was able to secure such seemingly broad and deep public acceptance. And until the fall of the Soviet Union, Marxism was still widely perceived in the West as the Other of the capitalist system.

For the advanced capitalist countries, I would use the following major periods as a guideline for the context of criticism of the capitalist system as such:

  • Golden Age of Capitalism, 1945-1973. That was certainly not a common label during those years, although there is never a shortage of boosterism for capitalism
  • Post-Bretton Woods, beginning in 1973: As Yanis Varoufakis ably describes in The Global Minotaur (), the was a major inflection point for recycling the world's capital surpluses, when the currency-management system of the capitalist countries that had acted as a stabilizer in the postwar years was dramatically ended when the Nixon Administration broke the link of the dollar to gold.

In the decades after 1973, dogmatic "free market" neoliberalism rose to to dominance. Chile and Argentina under their military dictatorships that took power in the 1970s were major testing grounds for this approach. With the governments of Ronald Reagan in the US and Maggie Thatcher in Britain US, it surged in the advanced capitalist world. The fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union brought what Francis Fukayama famously called the End of History, and the worldwide dominance of neoliberalism, after the "shock therapy" introduction of Herbert Hoover economics in Russia and eastern Europe.

After the fall of the Soviet bloc and rapid liberalization of regulations on the international movement of capital, we had a series of spectacular financial crises. And eventually the Great Recession of 2007-9 (National Bureau of Economic Research dates for the US) and the slow recovery that followed. Wolff in the above interview pegs that as an inflection point for interest in Marxism, and more broadly in renewed critical thinking about the fundamentals of capitalism as an economic system.

In Europe that manifests itself in the current shifts in political parties, the most important of which has been the collapse of social democracy as a center-left party. Olaf Scholz, the current German Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister just presented a budget on behalf of the Grand Coalition of which his SPD is the junior member. Wolfgang Munchau writes (On the madness of Germany's investment cuts Eurointelligence 05/04/2018):
The idea is that Scholz wants to go down in history as the Red Hawk, as they call him, the biggest deficit hawk in modern German history. We would like to add to this observation that the SPD supported the austerity policies chancellor Heinrich Brüning in the early 1930s. The SPD embraced Keynesian policies in the 1940s and until the 1970s, but has now returned to its pre-Keynesian roots.
Karl Marx can legitimately claim to be a co-founder of the SPD, though they prefer these days to reserve that designation for Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). Strictly speaking, though, during the Great Depression the leading Marxist economists like Rudolf Hilferding also thought austerity policies for the governments of capitalist countries was an appropriate response to recessions.

I'll mention a few examples of evaluations of Marx on his 200th birthday. This is a Facebook entry from Kontrast, an online news service close to the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ):

They present a pretty anodyne Marx, "Seine Theorien haben Millionen Menschen inspiriert, für bessere Arbeit und ein besseres Leben zu kämpfen." ("His theory have inspired millions to fight for better work and a better life.") Karl Marx the tepid self-help guru.

Then there's Karl Marx the business adviser, here from the Economist via Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat:

The Economist article takes a stab at dialectics, "the very failure of his ideas to change the world for the better is ensuring them a new lease of life." The pitch of his article is, "The chief reason for the continuing interest in Marx ... is that his ideas are more relevant than they have been for decades." (Rulers of the world: read Karl Marx! 05/03/2018)

Camila Vallejo Dowling, a Communist Party deputy in the Chilean Congress who became world-famous several years ago as the leader of student protests in Chile, presents a comment and video on her Facebook page on Karl Marx, the militant democratic reformer.

Marx fue un gran pensador que nos dejó un tremendo legado. Creer que ninguna clase debe oprimir a otra es también creer y luchar para que podemos convivir sin opresiones de género, color de piel o religión. Porque todos y todas podemos aportar al colectivo desde el desarrollo de nuestro máximo potencial. Partial translation: "Marx was a great thinker who left us a tremendous legacy. To believe that no class should oppress another is also to believe and fight so that we can live together without oppressions of gender, skin color, or religion. Because absolutely everyone can contribute to the collective good with our maximum potential." (Maybe a touch of Marx the feel-good carreer coach, too.)

There's a #Marx200 hashtag on Twitter. It's like a performance of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant tale. This may be my favorite:

Jacobin offers some balls-out defense of Marx: Andrew Hartman, Marx’s America 5/05/2018; John Bellamy Foster, A New Marxian Century 5/05/2018; Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism 05/05/2018; James Ledbetter, Marx the Journalist 05/05/2018.

Here's a nice, safe commemorative documentary from Deutsche Welle English, Who was Karl Marx? 05/05/2018:

After seeing this in the DW documentary, I don't think I'll be able to live without a Karl Marx piggy bank:

The ZDF German channel also has a documentary, Karl Marx-der deutsche Prophet 02.05.2018

The German-language press featured various stories on Marx, including:

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