Saturday, September 19, 2020

On the bi-Centenary of Karl Marx’s birth (I)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.  Born on 5th May 1818, in the city of Trier in the German Province of the Rhineland, Marx was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers of all time.  A man of profound convictions, encyclopaedic erudition and an extraordinarily fecund mind, he read all the major modern European languages and made lasting and original contribution to half a dozen disciplines.  Marx entered the University of Bonn in 1835 and later proceeded to Berlin University to study Jurisprudence, History and Philosophy.  In line with the spirit of the times, Marx fell under the captivating spell of Hegelian Philosophy while still at the University.  Like all illustrious luminaries of thought, Marx stood on the shoulders of the previous generations of great thinkers.  His ideas were formulated, developed and took final shape on the basis of an exhaustive study, sustained critical engagement with and appropriation and synthesis of the best elements of classical German philosophy,  French sociological historiography and English Political Economy (Lenin ÔÇô Three sources and components of Marxism). 

The most brilliant representative of classical German Philosophy was Hegel.  Hegel taught that every phenomenon bore within itself, contradictory influences some of which tended to preserve it while some tended to undermine, transform and engender its decline.  This doctrine which Hegel called dialectics, applied no less to History which was an uninterrupted process of perpetual flux, change and development.  Every social phenomenon was thus inherently embedded with the dynamic of self-motion, which determined its development as well as its eventual decline and disappearance.  The fundamental cause of this movement was the absolute idea which unfolding and expressing itself in multifarious forms governed the historical process (G.W Hegel ÔÇô An introduction to the Lecturers on the Philosophy of History, G.V. Plekhanov. On the sixteenth anniversary of Hegel’s death), Marx adopted the dialectical method, but discarded the mystical shell which had enveloped it within the Hegelian system, and recast it on a materialist basis.  He argued that material reality exists independently of the desires, intention and will of those who seek to apprehend it.  He further pointed out that knowledge was apprehension of reality by thought, or the interaction of the subject and the object.  In the course of the apprehension of reality man gains the possibility of changing and transforming reality through action based on the insights gained on the essence of reality.  In this respect, practice was the criterion for the verification of theoretical insights as well as a lever for the changing and transformation of nature to ensure the reproduction of human needs. (See among others K. Marx ÔÇô Theses of Feubarch, E Mandel ÔÇô The place of Marxism in history, A. Thailhemer ÔÇô An introduction to historical materialism).

Like his illustrious teacher Hegel, Marx applied the dialectical method to the study of history.  The idea that it was not the heroic exploits of great generals, Kings and other distinguished statesmen which shaped history had begun to penetrate Historiography at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The French Historians of the restoration period in particular had in their study of the English and French revolutions come to the conclusion that History was fundamentally shaped by conflicts opposing large numbers of people.  They adopted the concepts of class and struggle in attempting to understand the structures and dynamics of societies they were studying, particularly the causes underlying the breaking out of revolutions (See G.V. Plekhanov ÔÇô The development of the Monist view of history. Professor Tuminev ÔÇô Marxism and Bourgeois historical science).

Marx adopted these advances and deepened and enriched them in a significant way.  In Marx’s view, classes are not a permanent feature of all societies, but arose at a particular stage in the development of society.  He pointed out that in order to understand the fundamental cause and direction of historical evolution one has to start from the centrality of social labour as a basic tool for the existence and survival of the human species.  In contrast to other animals which ensure their survival by passive adaptation to their environment, human beings actively interact with nature to mould and adapt it to produce their needs.  Animals grow thick fur to protect themselves against the cold, while human beings extract animals’ skins to fashion clothes for the same purpose.  At the dawn of human history men moulded and reshaped wood and stone to make various implements to facilitate the performance of various task necessary for their survival (G.Childe ÔÇô Men makes himself). From the stone age through pastoralism and agriculture to the modern industrial age, the story the of mankind has been that of incessant struggle with nature to produce its needs gain more insight into its inner laws so as to ensure a longer, healthier and more enjoyable life.  By its very nature this process has always been social and collective in character.  In the process of reproducing their means of existence men enter into definite relations with other men, to organise and coordinate the labour process.

These relations of production constitute the economic structure of society which determine all other relations ÔÇô social political etc. (K. Marx ÔÇô contribution to the critique of political economy K. Marx and F. Engels ÔÇô The German ideology).  Stable relations of production, which reproduce more or less spontaneously constitute successive modes of production which are distinguished from each other by the level of development of technique and the particular manner in which the ruling classes are linked to the basic means of production and the specific way in which they appropriate the social surplus product.  Marx designated these successive stages primitive communism of the hunters and hordes of the dawn of human history, the slave made of production, the Asiatic, feudal which did not necessarily follow each in linear fashion, and modern capitalism.  The specific traits and regularities of these epochs are verifiable by pre- history and History (G. Childe ÔÇô what happened in History).  In Marx’s view, the place of social classes was organically and structurally linked to their specific relationship to the major means of production and their role in organising the production process and appropriation of the social surplus product.  It was this basic economic character which determine their material interests and their social and political role. While Marx posited the economic relation as the most important social relation, he also recognised that every human activity is preceded, and accompanied by a process of reflection, contemplation and that the material world has as in its necessary concomitant ideal representations (ideas, theories, illusions dreams) in men’s heads. However that all these elements of social consciousness were ultimately rooted in the material world, which they reflected, albeit sometimes in a distorted and fantastic fashion.  Social being determined social consciousness (see for instance K. Marx ÔÇô Preface to the English Edition of capital vol I and F Engels ÔÇô socialism, utopian and scientific).

However once, they had emerged, ideas, theories and all other superstructural phenomena become an integral part of the historical process and in turn react on their material economic basis.  The above sketched lines are a schematic of the theory of historical materialism which was Marx’s most important contribution to sociology and Historiography.  The discovery of social labour as the most important tool for the existence and survival of the human species led Marx to study problems of Economics.  Political Economy as the discipline was called at that time, had emerged as an independent science in the 17th century with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.  The cardinal question invariably tackled by leading economic thinkers during the 18th and 19th century was that of the origin of wealth as well as the basis and standard of exchange of products.  Various Economists in France and Britain had elaborated the thesis that it was only labour which was productive and constituted a basis for the comparability and exchange of products. This so – called labour theory of value found its most theoretically advanced formulation in the English classical school of Political Economy represented in the main by William Petty, Adam Smith and David Ricardo (see V.Anikn- science in its Youth, Pre Marxist Political Economy, I Rubin ÔÇô A History of Economic thought) After some hesitation, Marx embraced this thesis and proceeded to deepen and develop it as the basic cornerstone of his whole Economic doctrine.  While basing his theory of the advances made by classical bourgeois political economy, Marx charted his own independent methodological path.  For him, Political Economy ought to deal with and analyse relations arising between men in the process of production and distribution of products and not the relations between things. Secondly he set out to analyse the inner structure and laws of motion of capitalism as a historically transient social system which had emerged developed and would decline and fall as a result of its internal contradictions.  He pointed out that generalised commodity production which is the fundamental basis of capitalist production is a combination of the labour process and value creating process.

The worker who has no access to the means of production, to enable him to undertake independent production is compelled by the threat of starvation to hire himself to the owner of the means of production, the capitalist.  What the worker sells to the capitalist is his labour power, the capacity to produce.  Like any other commodity, this labour power has its particular usefulness and its value.  Its specific usefulness to the capitalist is its capacity to produce more value than its own value- Among all the elements which enter into the productive process, raw materials, auxiliary materials, working tools and machinery, it is only labour which has the capacity to add more value than the equivalent for its own sustenance.  Through the intervention of the labour process, the other productive elements (machinery working tools etc.) have their value preserved and transferred as it is to the new product.  At the end of the process the value of commodities is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour embodied in them.  Marx polemicized against those like the French Economists J.B. say and Bastiat who adopted the standpoint of an individual capitalist and were thus inclined to the view that the value of the commodities was determined by supply and demand.  He characterised such conception as vulgar on account of it being premised on superficial appearance of socio-economic data without attempting to delve deeper into their essence, as required of every scientific inquiry or investigation.  It would take us beyond the scope of this article to discuss the interesting question of why it was precisely this vulgar conception which was embraced by later economists and incorporated into the corpus of mainstream economics.  It suffices to point out that for Marx, the value of commodities is pre- determined during the production process, and is not affected by what occurs in the sphere of circulation and exchange. 

*Moupo is a leading leftist scholar, a former Member of Parliament, a former Leader of Opposition and leader of the BNF

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