Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Marx Botherers: 125 years on

On the 125th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death, China’s Communist Government has announced that work on the first direct translation from the German of the 60 volumes of the Chinese-language edition of 'The Complete Works of Marx and Engels' won't be completed in the foreseeable future because of staff shortages. The work has never before been translated from German directly into Chinese and it has taken 18 years to produce the first 20 volumes. The latest deal is lack of new qualified translators who take up to ten years to train. The previous translation is based on a Russian version from the 1950s.

The father of communism, Karl Marx died on 14 March 1883 of pleurisy and bronchitis. However his writings on politics, economics and philosophy remain hugely influential today. Marx was born on 5 May 1818 at Trier in the Rhineland which was then part of Prussia. His father Heinrich was a lawyer who, although was from a Jewish family, registered as a Protestant when laws were passed preventing Jews from holding public positions. Europe was undergoing massive change during Karl’s early life. The Industrial Revolution was leading to the growth of the factory system and the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars led to the abolition of feudalism throughout much of Europe.

Marx followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law at the University of Bonn before moving on to history and philosophy. In 1836 he moved to the University of Berlin where he became interested in the teachings of Hegel. He wrote a thesis on Greek philosophers which was accepted at the University of Jena in 1841. In 1843 he married Johanna “Jenny” von Westphalen, the beautiful daughter of Baron von Westphalen, a cultured and politically progressive Prussian. That same year Marx began working for the radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. His hard-hitting articles on the plight of peasants in France’s Moselle region made waves and the paper was eventually censored and Marx was forced to resign.

Marx moved to Paris to escape Prussian political repression. There he encountered a vibrant working class and socialist movement. He briefly worked on a journal called German-French Annals where Marx first began to direct his appeals to the workers rather than the intellectuals. It was here he also met Friedrich Engels who was to become a lifelong friend. Engels was a business agent based in England working for his father. It was his article on economics for the Annals that impressed Marx.

While in Paris, Marx also became influenced by Russian anarchists including Mikhail Bakunin. Their ideas of a government-less society and absolute freedom became important to him as he struggled to work out his own philosophy. In 1848, he and Engels published their own theory of reform in a 12,000 word booklet called Manifesto of the Communist Party, popularly shortened to The Communist Manifesto. The book described the unfair state of society and how revolution could change it into an ideal communist state. It described how the capitalist system had come about and how it exploited the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The most famous rallying cry of the book read: The proletarians have nothing to lose except their chains…working men of all countries unite!”

Marx’s revolutionary ideas caused him to be expelled from France in 1845, from Belgium in 1848 and Prussia a year later. He moved to London where he settled for the rest of his life. His wife Jenny gave birth to seven children but only three survived. The baron’s daughter was not used to the crushing poverty she now found herself in. They relied heavily on Engel’s largesse while Marx learned English. His main source of income were the articles he wrote for newspapers such as the New York Herald Tribune.

In London, Marx’s main contacts were with other Europeans, particularly German and French radicals and refugees, with many of whom he had intermittent squabbles and disagreements. Marx spent the last 25 years of his life writing Das Kapital. This was to be a broad-ranging scientific study of capitalism, politics and economics running into several volumes. He spend much of his time researching at the British Museum library where he became a well known figure. Marx made extensive use of the library’s collection of factory inspectors’ and public health officers’ reports. Marx also spoke often at working men’s clubs and political groups.

Marx’s final years were dogged with illness especially bronchitis. Marx was a heavy smoker and also drank alcohol heavily. He made his illnesses worse by overwork. As well as working and speech-making, he was also heavily involved with the International Working Men’s Association which was better known simply as the International. Marx was a founder member of the international in 1864, wrote its inaugural address and drew up its statutes.

His last years were also dominated by personal tragedy. Jenny died in 1881 and his favourite eldest daughter, also Jenny, died a year later of cancer of the bladder. Marx never recovered from this double blow. He died in March 1883 with his great work incomplete. He was buried at London’s Highgate cemetery. After he died, Engels spent another 11 years working on Marx’s papers and completing the final volumes of Das Kapital.

Marx’s ideas were initially slow to spread. Although Marx himself expected the revolution to occur in the industrialised countries of Britain and Germany, it was Russia where his ideas were first put into practice. Marxism came to Tsarist Russia through the work of Georgi Plekhanov, son of a European based landowner. Plekhanov was the first Russian to write about Marxism as it applied to his own country. His ideas were taken on by students who spread the word through towns and factories.

One of the early converts was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov who was later to become known as Lenin. Lenin was sent to Siberia for three years for preaching Marxism to factory workers. He was a charismatic leader whose time came with Russia’s disastrous entry into World War I. His Bolsheviks gained power in October 1917 and inaugurated the dictatorship of the proletariat. But after many years of civil war, the Russian Communist state that emerged bore little resemblance to that envisioned by Marx and Engels. Russia was not developed economically enough for true communism to exist. Stalin became dictator on Lenin’s death and the state that Marx prophesised would ‘wither away’ instead became all powerful.

Although the capitalist system that Marx described no longer exists, Marxism remains relevant in the 21st century. His economic predictions that large corporations would dominate world markets and industry would become reliant on technology have both proven to be correct. At the end of the Cold War, critics suggested that Das Kapital was obsolete but by 1998 market panics in Asia caused the Financial Times to question if we had moved "from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely a decade. Marx’s philosophy is also pertinent. His ideas of the alienation of labour and its debilitating consequences on human beings has more credence than ever today.

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