Thursday, March 02, 2017

Marx: Timekeeper of the Oppressed
February 27, 2017
Stanely Mushava
Literature Today
Zimbabwe Herald

When we gather around Karl Marx to size up the elites, we think of the patron saint of socialism as a hardened ideologue with a mane that might set a comb’s teeth on the edge. It is hard to locate Marx outside the static image of an austere, micro-managing law-giver or a belligerent, mean-spirited heretic, depending on which angle you see the world from. But these monolithic impressions of Marx have been handed down to us by political gatekeepers intent on projecting him above human flaws or below human feelings, depending on their ideological prism.

Marx rarely comes to us in close-up portraits touched by weakness and warmth like an ordinary mortal. The mythic prophet’s cringe-making mane has swept out of cultural spaces his milder tendencies as a sickly youth, obscure poet, ardent romantic, hungry journalist and fallible philosopher in correspondence with his times.

A 2016 biography, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion”, by Gareth Stedman Jones sets out to rediscover Marx before he was frozen into a deity venerated in communist capitals and commandeered by state actors.

The book aims to establish “important differences between Marx himself – who he was, how he behaved, what he believed, what he thought about – and the ways in which he had come to be represented in political discourse”.

Ironically, one of the humanised versions of the champion of the global South is attributed to an American president. John F. Kennedy opens his famous “The President and the Press” address to American newspaper publishers with a light-hearted anecdote about Karl Marx as a struggling young journalist.

“You may remember that in 1851 the New York Herald Tribune under the sponsorship and publishing of Horace Greeley, employed as its London correspondent an obscure journalist by the name of Karl Marx,” the 35th US president recalls 100 years on.

“We are told that foreign correspondent Marx, stone broke, and with a family ill and undernourished, constantly appealed to Greeley and managing editor Charles Dana for an increase in his munificent salary of $5 per instalment, a salary which he and Engels ungratefully labelled as the ‘lousiest petty bourgeois cheating’.

“But when all his financial appeals were refused, Marx looked around for other means of livelihood and fame, eventually terminating his relationship with the Tribune and devoting his talents full time to the cause that would bequeath the world the seeds of Leninism, Stalinism, revolution and the Cold War.

“If only this capitalistic New York newspaper had treated him more kindly; if only Marx had remained a foreign correspondent, history might have been different. And I hope all publishers will bear this lesson in mind the next time they receive a poverty-stricken appeal for a small increase in the expense account from an obscure newspaper man,” Kennedy says to incredulous laughter from his audience.

Marx’s collaborator and benefactor Friedrich Engels, the (German) Social Democratic Party which managed his estate and Marxist state actors of the 20th century, appropriated from him what was politically gainful and obscured his evolving and sometimes inconsistent intellectual strivings.

For all his defiance, an impoverished Marx heavily depended on Engels for his necessary expenses and allowed the latter to graft convictions he did not share into the corpus. Patronising Marx’s gravestone, Engels credited Marx for accomplishing in the human sciences as much as Darwin had accomplished in the natural sciences, a parallel conceived during Marx’s lifetime.

Marx himself did not agree with Darwin’s theory of natural selection but never discouraged Engels from dubious matchmaking or promoting other convictions in his name because the bearded philosopher would come knocking for money at the end of the day.

Maybe it is an exaggeration to say that Engels was Marx’s immediate example for a piper’s paymaster, since the few exceptions prove the rules, but the former’s adminstration of the latter’s estate set the stage for compromise.

Jones does not doubt Marx’s universal ambition but humanises his progression towards it. Sometimes the philoshopher-economist was off the mark and sometimes he recanted or updated his work with the benefit of hindsight.

For example, he initially dismissed rural communities as being caught in a time-warp, a residue of the past rather than a force for the future, but he later allotted them a title role in the socialist revolution alongside the working class after extending his research to the US and, as relevant to the prognosis, Russia.

Critics require from Marx’s hands the blood of millions shed by totalitarian regimes in the name of communism but Marx himself was opposed to the idea of revolutionary dictatorship.

If he went to a Marxist state as Jesus went to church in “The Legend of the Grand Iniquistor”, there is no telling that the murderous bogeymen invoking his name as a political letterhead would not put him before the firing squad.

But why the painstaking distinction between Marx and Marxism when the man left his thoughts in his books? Chiefly, that he is more mediated than he is read. He has been canonised to earth’s timekeepers whom everyone has an opinion on despite having never read firsthand.

Is it an irony of achievement or a function of the political economy that pro-poor champions like Karl Marx, Bob Marley and Nelson Mandela posthumously cede the right to define their intentions and become political capital in the hands of the elites?

To commandeer Marx, the new elites must propagate an illusion of infallibility. As Isaiah Berlin writes, Marx’s intellectual system becomes a closed one where everything that enters must conform to a pre-established pattern.

Jones insistently deflates Marx back to his 19th-century setting, stripping him of questionable posthumous constructions. Besides outlining a humanised progression of Marx’s accomplishments, he also questions some of Marx’s conclusions.

For example, to explain the equilibrium price of a commodity, which patterns of supply and demand cannot answer, Marx writes in “Capital” that the price of a commodity is determined by how much labour time has gone into it but erroneously plays down the relative desirability of commodities.

This exhaustively researched and ably written intellectual biography maps the setting from which both the essential Marx arose. But Jones is not blind to Marx’s ambition or achievement. “From the beginning,” he observes, Marx was “determined to impress himself upon the world.”

In Africa, Marxism powered the guerilla war machine which rid the continent of European colonialism. The timekeeper of the oppressed not only straddled 20th century Asia and Latin America but continues to fire up the worldwide resistance of the underclass in our day.


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