In a 2011 BBC interview, the late, great art critic John Berger was asked, in an intrigued but slightly incredulous tone, about Marxism and whether it was "still helpful today."
"If we look at what is happening to the world and the decisions taken every day," Berger replied, "all those decisions made in the name of one priority, of ever increasing profit… at that moment, Marx doesn’t seem so obsolete, does he?"
As a revered cultural figure, Berger was the kind of Marxist the establishment could afford to indulge a little. Yes, he had some pretty radical ideas, but it was OK because he was writing books and making television programs. He wouldn't be let into the heart of the system; his ideas would remain on the sidelines.
Interviews like this were common. In 2002, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked again and again by a sweaty Jeremy Paxman if his commitment to communism was not misguided. Maintaining his dignity in the midst of Paxman's hectoring disbelief, Hobsbawm told him, "My commitment to the poor, to the oppressed, wasn't."
For decades, frothing condescension has been the default position for dealing with Marxism. As the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth arrives, this stance is becoming more and more absurd.
Karl Marx was born 200 years ago, on May 5, 1818, in Trier, a small Rhineland city near the French border. Though, by the time of his death in 1883, much of his writing remained unpublished, his influence grew and grew, and interpretations of his work proliferated to the point where, today, when we talk about Marxism (not to mention socialism or communism), we could be talking about any number of ideologies, systems, and theories.
This is not the place for those debates. It's enough to say that Marx (as well as his frequent writing partner, Friedrich Engels) remains the preeminent critic of capitalism, that he saw it as a system that degrades and exploits workers, a system whose recurring problems (homelessness, inequality, an economy that bounces all over the place, plutocracy, waste, instability) are unavoidable and built into it, and that these problems would be the system’s downfall, with the working classes rising up to free themselves from tyranny.
Marx's analyses and predictions were revolutionary. They showed that a world without capitalism was a possibility and that human beings would never be truly free until such a world came about. It is perhaps because of this that no other thinker since his birth has inspired as much admiration, passion, rage, incredulity, and condescension as Marx.
The establishment tends to think of Marxists as either dangerous or absurd—as sinister revolutionaries or naïve idealists. Following the end of the Cold War and the emergence of Third Way politics in the 1990s, it looked for a while as though Marxism was dead, capitalism had triumphed, the end of history was here, and that, as Thatcher put it, there was "no alternative."
Marx graffiti in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by the author
Today, things look very different. Marxism, which never went away, is back. Capitalism, which was for a time seen as being akin to a law of nature, something permanent and unchangeable, is now being discussed and critiqued even by its champions.
Distinguished liberal publications like the New York Times are publishing articles saying Marx was right; a child named Sceneable is racking up millions of views with YouTube videos about communism; Chapo Trap House is a leftist podcast piling up subscriptions; and polls show that a majority of American adults, under the age of 30, reject capitalism.
New books, plays, and films are being made about Marx, with a recent focus on his life as a young guy who liked to drink and talk all night, before giving capitalism hell all day.
Across the Western world, Marx's influence is beginning to be felt again in the political mainstream. In America, Bernie Sanders—not a Marxist, but not a Marx hater—won millions of votes running as an unashamed democratic socialist in a country whose embrace of neoliberal capitalism and official antipathy toward leftist thought is something it has effectively gone to war over again and again and again.
In Britain, the Labour Party is renewed under another socialist, Jeremy Corbyn. At the beginning of March, the Financial Times published an interview with Corbyn's shadow chancellor and longtime comrade John McDonnell under the headline, "Is Britain ready for a socialist chancellor?" Corbyn, McDonnell, and their other main ally, Diane Abbott, spent decades on the sidelines of a Labour Party led by Tony Blair and his successors. Now, though, they may be surrounded by disbelief and hostility, they are at its heart.
The unraveling of capitalism, it's morphing into ever more grotesque shapes, as predicted by Marx, is a huge part of this resurgence. In the countries that birthed capitalism (Europe, North America, Japan), wages have not grown for decades. Work is increasingly precarious. Affordable housing is in short supply. Meanwhile, those at the very top get richer and richer, with Oxfam finding that, in 2017, 82 percent of the wealth generated went to the richest 1 percent of the global population.
If you have had the feeling that you are being ripped off, well there's Marx, showing you that you always create more value for your employer than your employer pays you. "Capital," he writes, "is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks... If the laborer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist."
If you have been bedazzled and enraptured by the latest sneakers off the production line, well there’s Marx, with his theory of the commodity fetish.
If you have had the feeling that you are not in control of your life, that you are a cog in a machine, that the work you do does not in any way represent you and that you are being overwhelmed by competition, well there’s Marx again, with his theory of alienation.
"Marx's relevance today is chiefly in the analysis of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the property-owning classes, which the materialist conception of history takes as its starting point, and in the cultural and political implications which such a concentration of wealth implies and evidences," Gregory Claeys, author of the newly published Marx and Marxism, told me. "Plutocracy is everywhere evident, and its control over the means of propaganda [press, TV, internet] as well as the capacity of corporate money to circumvent the democratic political process is equally obvious."
Claeys, who describes himself as a socialist, not a Marxist, identifies three factors that have led to a renewed interest in left alternatives to neoliberal capitalism and to which Marx is "clearly relevant to."
These are the "persistence of the 2008 financial crisis, with the warning that chronic instability still underpins capitalism generally; the astonishing growth in inequality which has marked the last decade or so, and warnings about the prospects of mass unemployment in the later 21st century as automation proceeds."
On that last point, the idea of fully automated luxury communism has come along, with the crucial point that what automation leads to is a political decision—we could end up in a hyper-capitalist dystopia in which machines have taken most of the work, but the money and time still remains in the hands of the few, or we could see the money saved from automation put in the hands of the people whose jobs have been taken by machines, thus liberating us.
Marxism, as intellectual Terry Eagleton suggests. "It is about leisure, not labor. It is a project that should be eagerly supported by all those who dislike having to work. It holds that the most precious activities are those done simply for the hell of it, and that art is in this sense the paradigm of authentic human activity."
Vijay Prashad, author, journalist, and director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, told me that, as a Marxist, he understands that "liberalism and other forms of political thought are not able to manage the contradiction between their high-minded ideals and the policies that they produce (namely, policies that consolidate and propagate private property over human needs)."
Capitalism, Prashad believes, cannot solve its own problems. "We have acute joblessness around the planet. Three billion people go to bed each night with hunger gnawing their stomach lining. There is no solution to any of these within the realm of capitalist thought and policy. Entrepreneurship? That won’t end world hunger. Nor will vouchers. What alternative is available?"
Prashad offered a robust defence of a criticism often made of Marx, namely that his work was used as the foundation for societies that ended up becoming akin to dictatorships, that the killing of millions of people in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere is proof that Marxism leads inevitably to death and destruction.
"The 20th century is filled with experiments toward a post-capitalist future," Prashad says. "Most of these experiments took place in peasant societies, where the new state had to struggle to assemble resources for socialism. These experiments taught us lessons, showed us a glimpse of another world—and showed us the limitations of building socialism without resources and building socialism without a genuinely strong capacity to be democratic in action."
In the end, Marx and his work represent that idea of an alternative to what we have, to the idea of another world being possible. Though it has been treated as such, Marxism is not a religion. Not everything has to be applied. But one of the reasons Marx has been so feared and smeared is because of his deviation from orthodox thinking because of the threat to the established order carried in his work.
There is also, particularly in his early work, a great championing of humanity. "The less you eat, drink, and read books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence," he writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, "the more you save—the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour... The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life—the greater is the store of your estranged being."
Today, there isn’t even a guarantee that shunning the public house and the dance hall in favor of work will lead to you accumulating a nice hoard of mothproof treasure. Today, you might just have to work all the time in order to survive. In Marx, at least, we have someone who understands this.