What would Marx think about us today? For some, the two-hundred-year-old ideas of the revolutionary German economist and political theorist Karl Marx still help explain the world around us. Others consider his theories obsolete, or even dangerous. After all, he was wrong about a global revolution of the proletariat, and regimes during the Cold War purporting to put his theories into practice were exposed as murderous, despotic, and corrupt. On the other hand, the 2008 global economic crisis has made many question whether unrestrained free markets really hold all the answers.

Marx would certainly recognise the problem of inequality in capitalism today. According to the aid organisation OXFAM, the world’s eight richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of people on Earth. Yet there is no revolution in sight. Perhaps not everybody feels the system is not working? The global economy is growing again, and over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty since 1990.

May 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and February 2018 will be the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To mark these dates, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the impact and legacy of Marx and his writings.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Carlos, who argues that the inequality we see around us today is proof that capitalism presents a serious danger to society. Is he right?

To get a reaction, we put Udo’s comment to Ulrike Herrmann, a German journalist whose career has focused primarily on the consequences of the global economic crisis. She has just written a book about what we can still learn from the “classics” like Marx and other political economists. What would she say to Carlos?

Yes, of course, Marx’s warnings about capitalism are still relevant, so Marx and Engels are still read today. One of the guiding questions was already there in the Communist Manifesto: how can it be that poverty exists in rich countries? That is still the question today, and also the question that Carlos is asking. There is a lot – a LOT – of wealth, and yet it does not benefit the majority. How can that be? That’s what Marx tried to explain. A key finding from his book Das Kapital is that a few large corporations control the entire production chain of products, so capitalism always leads to a concentration of wealth. That is still true today; we are still living in a world of large corporations.

To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Adrian Wooldridge, a British journalist and columnist for The Economist. What would he say?

I think what Carlos says is true, in that we’re seeing extraordinary concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people. There was a day last week when Jeff Bezos’ wealth increased by more $1 billion in a day. You have these gigantic Silicon Valley fortunes. I would say [we need] an inheritance tax. That means that some of these giant fortunes don’t exist forever.

You also have the casualisation of labour, by which I mean, the Uber economy, the Internet, is creating a market of just-in-time, on-tap labour, which is in a sense very ‘casual’ labour, and I think that if we’re going to have the majority of people without stable jobs, in ‘just-in-time’ employment, it creates a very unstable basis for society. I’m not absolutely certain about the casualisation of labour, but I think we’ll have to have certain rules about people paying into the tax system for their own retirement, maximum hours of work, and we will have to introduce certain formalities into this massively growing informal economy in the longer term. We need this just to have a stable middle class, which is the basis of any society.

Marx’s solutions to these problems were not very good solutions: abolishing private property, nationalising means of production, distribution and exchange. Those things have been tried and they haven’t worked. What we need is a series of solutions that are informed by a notion of what’s wrong with capitalism – but go with the grain of capitalism – to try and solve them. We had reforms in the late 19th century, we had them in the 1930s when we had serious problems, and I think it’s not beyond our wits to have another set of sensible reforms. So: reform not revolution.

Our next comment came from Bart. While he is not blind to the problems of capitalism, he is nevertheless convinced that modern capitalism is the best system we’ve ever had. Bart argues that capitalism has is bringing more people greater prosperity and economic growth than ever before. How would Adrian Wooldridge react?

Absolutely, I think that’s absolutely true. Capitalism is, as it were, the only game in town. If you look at the history of the world, up until about the 18th century economies were essentially flat. They grew at about 2% a century. People did what their parents did. Society didn’t create much new wealth. We basically had a static society in which history is a series of repetitions. What happens in the 18th century, with the arrival of capitalism, is you begin to get sustained growth. And that growth, for a long time, has been 2% or 3% a year, not a century. So, societies got immeasurably richer, and over the last 30 years, when we’ve had so-called ‘turbo-charged’ capitalism (or ‘globalisation’), the world as a whole has seen the most extraordinary advances against poverty. But just because capitalism is the only show in town, and just because capitalism is the only way to gain sustained economic growth, doesn’t mean it’s the perfect system. It doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed by simple government action.

What we’ve seen over the last three decades are a series of very worrying things: one is the financial crisis, which destroyed a huge amount of wealth; second is concentration of capitalism with companies such as Google having massive market shares, market shares that haven’t been seen since the late 19th century; and third, a very significant increase in inequality, with some of the people at the very top doing extraordinarily well. There are ways of dealing with that that don’t mean the abolition of capitalism, but mean sensible and active use of government. So capitalism isn’t just a thing that can’t progress. It can be improved by intervention.

Finally, how does Ulrike Herrmann think Karl Marx would have regarded the world we live in today? What would his reaction have been to the inequality we see? Would he have appreciated the benefits that capitalism can bring?

Marx would have [appreciated the benefits]. He was a big fan of technology, he was enormously interested in new inventions, and he found capitalism good. This must be clearly stated: Marx was not a critic of capitalism. Rather, he tried to describe capitalism scientifically. Marx saw that capitalism leads to enormous wealth, but only for the few and not the many. He found the ability of capitalism to generate wealth to be good. According to Marx, this wealth could then be distributed in Communism. But Marx thought that if, at a certain point, there were very few large owners left, it would be easier to dispossess those few under Communism. But, obviously, that did not happen. The system of large corporations – the oligopoly – has proven to be extremely stable.

What would Karl Marx have thought about the world today? Would he be fascinated by the achievements of capitalism and the welfare state? Or would he be shocked by global injustice? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: wikimedia (cc) – Alan D Cirker; PORTRAITS: Hermann (c) WDR – Herby Sachs; Wooldridge (c) The Economist


39 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Ivan

    Legacy of Karl Marx – Death & Murder on an industrial scale. Current body count +200 million and rising.

    Will debating Europe be examining the legacies of Hitler and Mao Zedong next ?

    For it’s crimes against humanity all forms of Socialism should be outlawed, or to use debating Europe’s favourite word ‘Banned’ and treated with the same hatred Nazism richly deserves.

    • John

      200 million? So sayeth the Black Book of Communism. If we apply the same methodology to capitalism, we can tally those that die from hunger, lack of access to clean water, vaccine-preventable diseases, and add onto that those who died from colonial and imperial wars. I’m sure that must be a pretty number.

      How about we try to avoid authoritarian governments and work against gulags, mass killings, famines and bad state-led economic plans instead? ;)

    • Ivan

      John

      The ‘honour’ role of Marxist dogma:

      USSR — 20 – 100 million dead

      China — 65 – 100 million dead

      Vietnam — 1 – 2 million dead

      North Korea — 2 – 4 million dead

      Cambodia — 2 – 3 million dead

      Eastern Europe — + 1 million dead

      Latin America — + 150,000 dead

      Africa — + 1.7 million dead

      Afghanistan — + 1.5 million dead

      Marxist, Communist & mixed socialist movements, parties not in power — + 10,000 dead

      The National Socialist German Workers’ Party — 60 – 80 million dead

      How many would you kill to try and make Socialism work this time ?

      http://www.aei.org/publication/take-a-bow-capitalism-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-of-extreme-poverty-in-20-years-thanks-to-markets/

    • Hannele

      “Nevertheless, millions of people were murdered in his name over the course of the 20th Century by despotic regimes and terrorist groups. Was he, in any way, responsible for these deaths? Or should we separate his original ideas from what came after?”

    • John

      Zero.

      Now, as I guessed, you got your numbers from the highly criticised Black Book of Communism.

      PS: Love how you managed to slip the Nazis in there. Of course, if they have “Socialist” in their name, they must be socialist. Just like North Korea is a democratic republic. :)

    • Ivan

      Hannele Kinnunen Should we separate the idea’s of Hitler from the actions of his followers to let him off the hook to ? Marxism is a cult of death.

    • Ivan

      John It is the action of the State that define what that state is so clearly North Korea is Communist despite it’s name but the Nazi & Communist systems belong at opposite ends of the ‘economic’ spectrum they fall in line for political alignment and leadership style & of course their respective death counts..

      Don’t tell me, if you were in power you would make Communism work, the truth of course is the result would be exactly the same as every other time it has been tried.

    • Ivan

      Ivan What about North Korea and Nazi Germany’s “state actions” make them “communist”? Do you think central planning is synonymous with communism?

    • Balázs

      The result would be the same??? That is so idiot. He was just thinking about other methods. Its not his fault that his communism was misguided by dictators…. maybe the capitalists saw something in it and it was that best that making its philosophy equal to mass murdering so no one will want it back

    • Hannele

      Ivan define “debate”. Thankfully we’re past that part of history and we can (can’t we) discuss and debate ideas, not their implementation in history.

    • Attila

      Egyfelől: Valyon a tőke csendes halála hány éhhalált, öngyilkosságot, erőszakos halált okozott. Másfelől Marx csupán egy röntgenképet készített egy halált okozó tumorról.

    • Ivan

      Balázs Marx’s philosophy ‘always’ leads to mass murder..

      How many would you kill to try and make Marxism work this time, 100 million, 200 million, 300 million, more ?

    • Ivan

      Hannele Kinnunen In the same way we don’t discuss the ideas of National Socialism or maybe there could be some benefits of debating Apartheid ?

      When the pile of dead bodies count in the hundreds of million isn’t time just to accept Marxism is a really, really, really bad idea that should be consigned to the dustbin of history ?

    • Ivan

      Balázs Marxism demanded genocide and his followers willingly oblige so where is the difference with the Nazi’s final solution ?

    • Alexander

      I’ve missed the history class where Marx was governing a state and killed people. I thought he wrote a book. I guess I was wrong…

    • Alexander

      And you are citing Jordan Peterson about Marxism. Don’t do it. Learn proper political philosophy. You will understand that totalitarism is what you fear and not Marxism. But you would need a brain to realize that.

    • Ivan

      Alexander Yes you are wrong.

      I doubt Hitler actually took part in the Holocaust himself so should he be forgiven for the sins of his followers ?

    • Ivan

      Alexander Thank you for showing your hatred of free speech, Marx would nave been be so proud of you.

  2. Michael

    Communism as per Marx is more an ideology/religion than an economic theory. The legacy is the mass murder of millions in the past 100 years starting in communist Russia.

  3. Fiona

    Is it possible that in 170 years the world has not managed a thinker of this magnitude?

    • Ivan

      The world as created many maniacs like Marx, fortunately most of them end up in mental institutions.

  4. Victor

    Too much democracy and freedom of Europe. With Karl Marx no debating europe.

  5. Bruno

    Ha! Good question. For a start, he would have seen how Marxism, as Oswald Spengler already understood, became a trailblazer for capitalism instead of the other way around. And how Marxist concepts, and more specifically Gramsci’s concept cultural hegemony and Trotsky’s idea of the permanent world revolution, came to serve as frameworks for today’s globalist oligarchies.

  6. Stef

    The countries that were part of the Eastern bloc that followed his philosophy are stil struggling with corruption and weak economy. I mean you just have to look at the difference between South and North Korea. Same starting point, same people just their economic system is vastly different. Where would you like to live?

    • Achille

      … and the difference between East and West Germany before the fall of the Wall.

  7. Indrius

    How many more millions of people have to die before this cancerous ideology is put where it belongs – in the garbage can of history?

    • Alexander

      Ivan Burrows, if you read the actual manifesto you would understand that he has a major role for you not working 16 hours a day 6 days a week.

    • Alexander

      Ivan, I understand your desire to change what he said, but he never placed people on his black list. He placed a specific way of thinking – the class thinking on his black list. The difference is that everyone who would follow his ideas, would just blend with history. And this IS REALLY IMPORTANT when you talk about Marx and any 19th HISTORIAN/SOCIOLOGIST – they have Hegel’s idea of Historicity – that history follows a certain pattern – goes somewhere. And this was not simply Marx’s idea, it was wide spread thinking, if you go through Darwin, to Imperialism, most of them thought that way. And Marx’s idea was that History would inevitably create a necessity to follow his ideas. Yet, what you are placing as his “doings” were actually doings of another sort of culture – the culture of those whos lives were simply work – 16 hours a day in a Factory. 6 Days a week. You can imagine why Russian people fought for the revolution with just these numbers. People felt oppressed.

      What happened after is not clearly collectivism. It has a lot of different stages and the worst of course are the Totalitarian regimes all over the world. But they were not Marx’s invention, they were Modernity’s invention – the need for constant rationalization of the world and in the same time equalization of people. And if the rationalization were much stronger in the west – Nazism and Capitalism – in the East – the idea of equality raised and it was so exaggerated that people like Stalin (totalitarism) were able to say stuff like “No man, no problem”. Those were the actual crimes. The rule over the person’s thoughts themselves. Yet that was no Marx’s invention and around the 1930, the interpretation of Marx was locked and was no longer a free interpretation at all. If you look at the western Neo-marxism, you would see a completely different way of viewing the ideas of Marx, which by no mean ended in Totalitarism. So the two things are COMPLETELY different and you should not blend them in 1. Because they are not.

    • Alexander

      Yep, now read it again and tell me where people are dying in his words and not classes. What he is saying is that the human relations that constitute the classes must perish. Not actual people. Holocaust before the second world war means a sacrificial ritual not extermination. He was understanding that no one would in any case give up his dominant position in society without a revolt.

    • Ivan

      Alexander Tsankov

      His entire dogma was based on 3 rules:

      1. Law of negation

      Proven to be dangerously wrong

      2. Law of opposites

      Proven to be dangerously wrong

      3. Law of transformation

      Proven to be dangerously wrong

      Anyone that basis their political doctrine on Scientific socialism will inevitably lead to the same ‘equality of outcome’ for everyone of misery & death (except the Marxist elite obviously),

      How many more people would you to kill to try and make it work this time, 100 million, 200 million, 300 million, more ?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccASsjhhgP8

    • Alexander

      They never tried it to work, Ivan. In Communist manifesto Marx states that classes should be abolished. What “Socialism” did was destroying the bourgeoisie by creating a new class – the Party class. Indeed that there were a Marxist elite is a total paradox. Totalitarism is not communism. Neither is socialism.
      Marx idea of Capital accumulation and about Stock fetishism is still pretty much widely accepted. So he is still a prominent thinker around 150 years after he wrote his most influential papers.
      You are still ignoring the fact that all worker’s movements are strongly influenced by Marx and his thinking. Why are you not into working 16 hours a day, just like the bourgeoisie wanted from their workers in the 19th century? You should hate the ideas of Marx, then why have 2 days a week break? Why work only 8 hours a day? Or he is a “killer” because you know so little of those cultural spheres and what were those people experiencing that you are repeating the same bullshit over and over again.

    • John

      Ivan – “in his own words”

      Except those aren’t his own words. It’s a mish-mash of Marx and Engels, taken out of context and with words replaced.

      The first part of the quote comes from an article he wrote in 1853, where he’s *criticising* capitalism’s lack of concern for human life
      https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/03/04.htm

      The second part of the quote comes from Engels, where he is criticising the oppression of national minorities. And, of course, as anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge knows, he didn’t use the word “holocaust.”
      http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1849/01/13.htm

  8. EU Reform- Proactive

    “What would Karl Marx have thought about the world today?”

    “Should” he be an immortal & capable- (reluctantly, I join the instigators and speculators like DE & others) – to open his eyes, mouth and restart his brain at a push of a button- realizing that he wasted his whole “journalistic life” on wrong determinations and predictions- oh shame!

    The honorable thing would be to quickly push the shutting down button and go back to his eternal- but mortal sleep & RIP.

    The notion that Capitalism would just be a (temporary) stepping stone towards a classless society is still awaiting realization. Scholars and supporters of him should rather find a more worthy and challenging direction than to honor & declare him as (one of) the greatest sons in Germany or even history. OMG!

    Surely, there are many others, who achieved much more for humanity (Einstein, Beethoven etc) – than indulging in future political speculations. Seems Germans like to indulge & test radical theories?

    Marx should rather be thought of as a professional writer- a journalist. The lot of them should be viewed with skepticism!

    http://www.marxsite.com/Marx%20as%20a%20Journalist.html

    Others calling him: “THE GREATEST INTELLECTUAL FRAUD OF THE 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES”.

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/135073/marx-sperber-mikics

    A more importantly issue today is: how to rectify the phenomena why the world’s richest 1% took 83% of all wealth last year? Finding a way towards a fairer & honest, less greedy system to re balance and reduce the 83%, without destroying our present economic system. Please politicians- go & push START!

    https://www.quora.com/How-is-it-possible-that-the-worlds-richest-1-took-83-of-all-wealth-created-last-year-What-does-that-say-about-the-system-we-live-in

  9. Anonymous

    – So what happened – was I right? There was a big economic crisis followed by proletarian revolution in Germany?
    – Well… in a manner of speaking.
    – I knew it!
    – Actually the proletarian revolution happened in Russia.
    – What, Russia!? That backwater!? Impossible.
    – China soon followed. And Korea and Vietnam. And, er, Laos. And Germany just decided everything was the Jews’ fault and had the biggest pogrom in history.
    – O_O And America?
    – America is same as you left it…
    – I’m going back to sleep.

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