By C Uday Bhaskar
The 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), a towering 19th century intellectual, was recalled on May 5 in different ways across the world, depending on how he has been perceived and understood over the last century.
Marx is associated with the ideology that bears his name, Marxism, which was later transformed into a global political movement, Communism, by Russian leader Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924) that shaped the 20th century in a distinctive and turbulent manner. Millions of people died in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China, among other parts of the world, in various murderous distortions and power struggles associated with communism.
The Cold War (1945 – 1991) between the US- led western alliance and the Soviet- led Warsaw Pact nations, was seen as an ideological divide between democracy and capitalism on one hand and authoritarian communism on the other. In December 1991, it was reduced to a misleading binary, that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of history, for the ideological contestation was won by the West.
While the former USSR has become democratic Russia, albeit authoritarian under President Vladimir Putin, China has evolved its own form of communism wherein capitalism has been internalized in an iniquitous manner. Other communist nations that have remained wedded to the Marxist ideology are Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea.
China, the largest communist country in the world, celebrated the 200th birthday with President Xi Jinping declaring: “Today, we commemorate Marx in order to pay tribute to the greatest thinker in the history of mankind and also to declare our firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”
The recall in India was more muted and reflective and a personal experience offers an insight. When an invitation was extended to a public lecture in Delhi that was to focus on the relevance of Marx in India and Asia, the reactions were illustrative of the cynicism and disdain that the ideology now evokes. While some suggested in a pointed manner that the ‘irrelevance’ of Marxism would be more appropriate, others asked in jest if a candle was still being held up for Marx, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Marx was an intellectual giant. While he is associated in the public perception with his better known pamphlet ‘Communist Manifesto’ and often reduced to a ‘materialist’ who was obsessed with capitalist exploitation, inequality and class struggles, he straddled many disciplines ranging from philosophy, economics, history, political theory, sociology and journalism.
Yet he was not just a man of letters alone. Marx believed firmly in moving from ideas to action and was both an activist and a revolutionary socialist. A prolific writer, it is estimated that a large corpus of his writings by way of drafts and notes are yet to be meticulously mined. For example, the preparatory work for his multi-volume economics book ‘Capital’ ran into 15 volumes comprising 24,000 pages!
Pondering over the contribution and continued relevance of Marx on his 200th birth anniversary is akin to the five blind men and the elephant, for there are so many inter-linked strands about the man and his monumental body of work. A limited extrapolation to the security domain warrants mention and some conjecture in relation to India’s internal security.
Specific to the unfolding of international relations and the strategic framework of the world, it would be reasonable to aver that the Russian revolution of 1917 was a seminal development which, in turn, owes its genesis to the Marx-Lenin linkage. The creation of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Stalin post World War II as the exemplar of the oppressive Communist bloc laid the foundation for the Cold War, which had a strong impact on Asia in general and India in particular.
The suggestion that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991led to the triumph of the US-led western alliance ; and that both capitalism and the liberal democratic ethos are the trusted benchmarks of the 21st century proved to be premature. The global economic –financial crisis of the last decade has drawn attention to one aspect of the Marxist corpus, namely exploitation in the production process/ wealth creation and the resultant inequality in society.
Marx warned about the dangers of capitalism and technology leading to a split in society, or what is now referred to as the class difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’; or the rich and the poor. While social/gender hierarchy and the inequality differential are inherent to the human condition, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in a visible manner in recent decades and this is very evident in democratic India.
A global study has indicated that India is the second-most unequal country in the world, with the richest 1 percent of the population owning 53 percent of the country’s wealth. In the USA, the comparable figure is 37.3 percent. The iniquitous distribution of wealth in India is further disaggregated to reveal that the top 10 percent own 76. 3 % of national wealth and the poorer majority make do with 4.1 %, with an extended middle-class accounting for the rest. Further data analysis suggests that this gap is getting wider, with the rich in India getting richer faster than their peers in the rest of the world.
Such obscene inequality is ethically indefensible in a democratic country. But the reality is that successive Indian governments have pursued policies that have not created equitable and enabling human security opportunities for the underprivileged, to acquire education and easy access to health, housing and employment.
Consequently India today is seething with internal discord and frustration among its youth, who see no meaningful options for improving their socio-economic conditions in a sustainable manner. The demographic dividend that Prime Minister Narendra Modi often extols as one of India’s advantages can turn into a demographic disaster if this socio-economic inequality is allowed to increase in such a manner. Internal security in India is deteriorating and the sharp rise in violence against women and the aged is just one indicator.
Some of the core observations made by Marx about the orientation of human society and its inherent exploitative nature that increases inequality warrant deeper reflection, given the complex socio-economic and political turbulence that India is now grappling with.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)