Friday, 8 May 2015

Why Read Marx?

Without reading Marx one is illiterate in modern thought
Like it or not, Marx tops the list of the most influential thinkers of the modern age. He has helped shape, or influence, not only politics, but economics, literature and literary criticism, philosophy, liberation theology and almost every important stream of humanities.
Nothing makes sense in the capitalist world except in light of Marx. Without reading Marx one is illiterate in modern thought. Name any philosopher or writer or political personality with whom one day (Ist May), every year, is identified across the world?  Reading Marx helps explain the world we live in and partly help fighting injustice in it.
All those who curse money power or rat race for competition and hanker for guaranteed employment, free education and healthcare, more leisure, holidays, pensions, social welfare schemes,  all kinds of insurances against exigencies, and have reasons to complain about banks and other capitalist institutions, and keep demanding better wages and talk about labour rights, are invoking Marx in one or the other way. It is the Left that has mostly been serving as the conscience of mankind taking head on neocolonialism and corporate rule.
From Chomsky to Tariq Ali to Arundhati Roy (and almost all important public intellectuals) whom we keep reading for insightful commentary on the mess in our world, we see invoking of Marx. From Sartre to Gunter Grass as writers, from Hobsbwam (internationally) to Irfan Habib (nationally) as historians, from Lucas and Althusser to Gramsci and Jameson as critics of ideology, from Brecht to Neruda as poets (Neruda was called by Marquez the “greatest poet of the century”), it is Marx who provides the tools to best diagnose and treat the sickness of the modern world.
Illuminating collection of articles in Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society underscore diverse facets of alienation in our culture we all complain about. Frontline environmentalists and human rights activists keep turning to Marx for analytical tools. No use approaching Marx primarily from religious lens or fulminating against him. Marx is there to stay as long as poverty, unemployment, visa restrictions, arms industry and spirit killing competition and alienation exist.
Reading Marx in depth is tough and lifelong odyssey as is reading almost most of significant thinkers from Aristotle to Derrida. However a selection of him and such slim writings as Communist Manifesto  should be largely accessible for general readers. I think reading Erich Fromn’s Marx’s Concept of Man, a few chapters from Capital, (especially from first volume) along with listening to some lectures from Harvey on it may be enough to taste something essential in Marx.
Following Marx who counts as influential thinker and is not a “Marxist” or influenced by Marxism or somehow engages with it implying there is no escaping Marx. In the case of Islam Marx has been appropriated by as diverse figures including  such “Sufi-Marxists” as Hasrat Mohani and Faiz, Ali Shariati, Allama Pervaiz and Iqbal ( whom Eqbal Ahmad calls a Sufi and a Marxist and for whom socialism + God = Islam ), not to mention countless number of public figures and social activists (Abdus Sattar Eidhi is a living example).
Who can afford to ignore or even seriously disagree with such key Marxian statements as: “All social rules and all relations between individuals are eroded by a cash economy.” “The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.” “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”
“In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” “Private property has made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital… Thus all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by … the sense of having.”
When  Communism seeks to abolish private property it echoes ethics of saints who have never sought to build huge private property. Prophets too have lived by this ideal of voluntary poverty (faqr) though they have taken a more liberal view in not imposing ban on human propensity to build small property.  Great souls have dreamt of semblance of heaven on earth and Marx has sought to show how to go for it.
Who can deny class matters (e.g., difference among A.C, sleeper and general classes of trains and impossibility of trespassing)? Who hasn’t been hurt by crippling effects of specialization and can hunt, fish, write, play as he wishes in a single day as Marx would like? Who can vote for Capitalism while being conscious of its human and moral costs? Who wouldn’t wish to be inhabitant of the “republic of goodness” that Marx sought to create that includes such clauses as life as leisure with art as key pursuit, that requires giving to each according to his need and taking according to his ability,  where  self realization of each is the self realization of all?
Marx’s tools for analysis of capitalism, his views on alienation, on labour theory of value, on need to change rather than merely interpret the world (without forgetting Heidegger’s retort that one first needs to understand the world one seeks to change) and his respect for the concrete and temporal in elucidating truth are abiding contributions for which mankind can’t be but grateful.
Let us read Marx along with critical reception of him from the likes of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Eric Fromn, Eric Voegelin, Jacques Derrida,  thinkers of Frankfurt school and such NeoMarxists as Zizek and Eagleton – to name a few only – to see how we keep the essential insights while rejecting authoritarian, totalitarian, grand narrative view that historically has been associated with its evolution in Stalinist, Maoist and other forms that mercilessly killed people, worshipped fragmentary images of transcendence in history and its own heroes and have given us stronger States instead of stronger communities through which the ideal of a world free of politicians and bureaucrats he implied in his idea of withering of the State could be realized. 
Some myths that need exploding include that Marx has failed after the fall of Soviet Union and Berlin wall, that we have no alternative to capitalism (Socialist, Islamic or traditionalist alternatives are there as live possibilities and largely converge in ends if not in means) and that Marxist approach can’t afford positive engagement with religion and mysticism (from Eagleton to Zizek we see opening to the theological).
We need to read Marx, appropriate him and proceed beyond him. Although Marx invokes the Sacred as far as passion for Art, Justice and Freedom of Spirit (thwarted by wage slavery and inhuman conditions of labour) partakes of the Sacred, he sides with desacralizing movement.
About deeper things that will sustain man in classless society (don’t forget Whitehead’s definition that religion is what one does with one’s solitude), for exploring depths of basic categories Sat, Chit and Anand  at both objective and subjective poles and resources for meaning in life Marx has little to offer and quite misleading if we take his materialist ontology seriously.
What Marxism misses at spiritual plane may be gleaned from reading, among others, Nietzsche, Heidegger,  Levinas,  Heschel and Schuon. Our ultimate destiny is the Kingdom of God rather than the earthly heaven which can only be approximated but never realized as earth is not heaven. NeoMarxism has increasingly abandoned naïve rejection of religion and economic determinism and reduction of almost everything from art to philosophy to ideology. We find fruitful cross fertilization with postmodernism, feminism, theology and other disciplines.
If the fundamental claim of Marxist theory is  “there must be countervailing forces that defend people's needs against the brutality of profit driven capitalism” who is not bound to take heed of Marx even though we need to be careful  to distance ourselves from a materialist metaphysics that denies man access to the Absolute or quest for transcendence.
Let us be weary of labels; even Marx had problems with the label Marxist. To conclude with Fedel Castro   “There is not Communism or Marxism, but representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned economy” and Sayle “Despite its flaws, Marxism still seems to explain the material world [today, in the reign of capitalism] better than anything else.”

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