Exposing the Pitfalls of Capitalism

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Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Das Kommunistische Manifest (English title: The Communist Manifesto) ISBN 978-3-88619-322-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Why should one read a Communist manifesto, written more than 150 years ago and decades after the obvious failure of Communism throughout the world? Today Marx would call his book “Capitalism for dummies”. He anticipated the human drama on the stage of a globalized economy, and, as he intended to speak to workers with limited education, he explained in simple yet powerful words the pitfalls of the capitalist economy. Although his systems analysis was based on a limited and not necessarily representative volume of information available in 1847, Marx isolated certain distinctive features of capitalism that have not changed over time.

It is those distinctive features that movements like “Occupy Wall Street” in New York or the “Gilets Jaunes” recently in France pointed their fingers at: the widening income gap between a handful of really, really rich people and a growing number of lower middle class people, the neglected infrastructure in rural areas, the increasing number of low paid jobs, the lack of access to education for certain parts of the population, the systematic discrimination of migrants in terms of employment.

None of these phenomena is new, they existed already in the 19th century and encouraged Marx to explore how these came about. He developed the theory of class conflicts: master against slave, feudal landowner against peasant, worker against company owner. In “Das Kommunistische Manifest” Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels postulate for the first time that this conflict is a necessary element of the human condition and thus unavoidable. Capitalism – and with it the class conflict – has to reach a climax and will break down right after that. That moment would be the beginning of the proletarian dictatorship. Classes would disappear and all means of productions (workforce, tools, factories, transport…) would come under collective ownership. It would be the birth of a new, more equal society.

In this respect Marx and Engels obviously where wrong. Capitalism proved to be adaptive and the fact that the two political thinkers published their ideas in the manifesto, and expanded it later in the monumental work “Das Kapital” may have contributed to it. The much despised capitalist bourgeoisie took Marx very seriously, they saw the signs on the wall. Anticipating revolutions in Europe, politicians and businessmen managed to forestall the proletarian dictatorship. Marx had deemed it impossible that the capitalist class would voluntarily raise workers pay, allow unions to negotiate salaries and contribute to a social security system. But that what capitalists all over Europe did, proving that there were alternatives to scenario Marx had sketched.

The only Marxist revolution that created a new type of society happened in Russia, an agricultural country with almost no proletariat. And the population had to be manipulated a coerced to participate in the creation of this new society – it had nothing at all of a historically unavoidable process as Marx had predicted it. The Communist manifesto is worth reading not only to see on a few pages where Marx was right, but also where he was wrong. Besides this, the German edition is wonderful to read, with almost every third sentence an aphorism.

The composer Dmitry Shostakovich initially believed in building a better world under the flag of Communism. While Nazis seemed to triumph over the liberal democracies in Europe, he like many other Soviet citizens were convinced that Communism was a bulwark against Germany’s expansionism. In 1929 he conceived his Symphony No. 3 “First of May”:

Thriving for a better, more human world

What If Karl Marx Was Right after All?

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Jürgen Neffe: Marx. Der Unvollendete. ISBN 978-3-570-10273-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A colleague of mine once remarked that one had to believe in Marxism at least for a short time in life. Well, after my studies is was done with Karl Marx and Marxism-Leninism. Five years of political science had taught me enough to disregard both as out-of-date and as failed experiment with disastrous consequences for millions. But… my judgment may have been both too harsh and premature with Karl Marx. Since in 2018 the revolutionary philosopher would have celebrated his 200th birthday and since he has been born very close to my home country, I decided to read Jürgen Neffe’s biography on Marx. Quite an eye-opener as I quickly had to admit.

No, I will not become a defender of an ideology that I still consider as failed. Marx once quipped he may be called anything except a Marxist. But Neffe’s book connects Marx’ reflections on the evolution of a form of capitalism, marked by a quickly developing industrial society with most of the wealth detained by a handful of factory owners, to the present day capitalism characterized by an incredible power concentrated in the hand of stock markets, rating agencies and banks. The dependence of workers and the middle class on more or less wise decisions of an elite represented by investment bankers, central bank directors, stock market traders and shareholders is worse than anything that Marx had imagined. Proletarians, unite? It’s rather the wealthy elite that stands united against any form of substantial top-to-bottom wealth distribution resulting in an ever-widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, the famous one percent pitted against the 99 percent, criticized by the movement “Occupy Wall Street”. Has Marx been finally proven right?

It is still too early answer affirmatively. But when I read how meticulously Marx had studied the capitalist mode of production of his time I was stunned by the fact that many – not all – conclusions he derived from his observations still applied today. The proletarian world revolution obviously never happened. But the fact that today even governments are at the mercy of capital owners and stock markets is something Marx had anticipated. He was frighteningly right in this respect.

Neffe must be applauded for his endeavour to link Marx’ theories to the world we live in some 150 years later and to highlight that this great thinker is not yet out-of-date. This said, the biography as such is a fantastic reading experience: the evolution of Marx’ political thinking, the birth of the Communist Party and its many failures, the rift between Communists and Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchists, the important logistical and intellectual role that Jenny Marx, the philosopher’s wife played, the birth of the twin-like relationship between Marx and Friedrich Engels – so many interesting chapters catapulting the reader into the 19th century and making him relive an epoch of tremendous societal changes and challenges.

The detailed explanation of Marx economic theories obviously required a minimum of knowledge on how a national economy is run. Nevertheless, it remains an indispensable part of any Marx biography as it is not possible to dissociate the man and the theory. Only a mind like Marx could come up with such a theory at this turning point of his history. Historical materialism always was and still is a tough nut, but again, it is worthwhile to read since the comparison of Marx forecast and the actual evolution of history shows where Marxism underestimated the inventiveness of capitalistic societies to ban the Communist ghost haunting Europe and prevented a revolution in these countries that according to Marx were most likely to experience one.

Marx was an enthusiast of classical music, but unfortunately Neffe doesn’t mention whether he had any preference in terms of composers. That’s why I picked a contemporary of Marx, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as a music teacher, supported the revolution of 1905 in Russia and defended the rights of his students to demonstrate at a time when the struggle between students and authorities became increasingly violent. In 1897, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Piano Trio in C minor:

Landmarks and memories of sunny days