Monday, June 08, 2009

Some thoughts on Karl Marx... a tentative defense

As an undergraduate student and later throughout my graduate studies in sociology, I really enjoyed studying the classic social theorists, especially Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. I loved reading about the historical context and the development of this fledgling social science which was so intrinsically appealing to me. These were philosophers and social analysts who defined the parameters for the field we now call sociology. I don't hear much these days about them, except for the odd awkward reference to Marx - usually by someone who is quick to clarify that he is "not a Marxist"! Interesting...

Though it's been MANY years since I first encountered the thinking of Marx, I still vividly recall the images that my reading produced in my mind. To this day, whenever I hear any reference to Karl Marx I see Marx and his friend, Frederick Engels (co-author of The Communist Manifesto published in 1848) and others in a smoky, noisy pub, engaged in intense conversation about the state of the world, the oppression of the masses, the injustices of an economic system that strips people of dignity. I sense their passion for the poor and their indignation over the evils of industrialization and the factory system. I agonize with them over the alienation of labour, whereby people quite literally become cogs in a machine of mass production, churning out "stuff" to appeal to a nascent materialism - now, incidentally, in full bloom or perhaps even a little past it's prime.

The themes of their writing, frankly, are similar to the things I spend a lot of time thinking about today in the context of global issues of justice and injustice. We talk about micro entreprise in countries like Kenya and Rwanda and Bolivia and the fact that it incredibly small loans can help people have dignity - they are "business owners" and they're able to provide for their families and send their kids to school. I've presented workshops on the global food crisis where we emphasize that the problem has less to do with the production of food and more to do with the fact that food is a commodity and poor people are priced out of the market.

It occurs to me that Marx's "bourgeoisie" have banded together to form massive corporations that control the means of production and siphon and squeeze profits from both land and labour.

So why are we so quick to distance ourselves from Marx? I think of some of the fundamental tenets of Marx's thinking - it was Karl Marx who said, for instance, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". This, in fact, was to be the motto of socialism, which Marx believed to be the ideal form of governance. That's right - socialism, NOT communism. According to Marx, communism would be a transitional form of governance which would be replaced by socialism. Marx was not a "communist" and Marx even declared that he was not a "Marxist"! Those "labels", I think, miss the whole point.

I've often thought that my biggest criticism of Marx (at least as I understand him) is that he underestimated the power of human selfishness and greed and the presence of evil in the world. In the end, Marx was an incurable optimist. He thought that humanity could and WOULD work for the common good and in so doing, everyday people would enjoy the dignity of their labour.

The other thing that people might have against Marx is his reported disdain for religion. You might have heard that Marx described relgion as the "opiate of the masses". Actually, the fuller quote is this: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.Perhaps we shouldn't be quite so quick to assume that Marx intended this as a slam against religion. Maybe it's more a description of a role that religion was playing in a heartless world. Honestly there have been times (lots of them!) when I have felt that many of us - even people with deeply held faith beliefs - have settled for a watered down, complacent faith that makes us feel better, but fails to engage the world in any truly transformative way. So - I'm prepared to say that I appreciate Karl Marx and he's stretched and stimulated my thinking.

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