What If Karl Marx Was Right after All?


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 Five years of political science had taught me enough to disregard both as out-of-date and as failed experiment with disastrous consequences for millions.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to link Marx’ theories to the world we live in some 150 years later and to highlight that this great thinker is not yet out-of-date.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

Who Will Rule the Busiest Sea Lane of the World?

Robert S. Kaplan: Asia’s Cauldron. The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-0-8129-9906-8 China is creating facts in the South China Sea by building airstrips on disputed islands like the Spratley’s, adding aerial defence systems and dredging natural harbours to make them accessible for larger warships. At the same time China’s navy is expanding and modernizing: submarines, cruise-missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth fighters and space-based command and control assets make China a formidable foe that not even the US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific wish to confront. Beijing asserts what it calls a historical right to dominate the South China Sea and builds up the military power to defend it.

Robert Kaplan has visited the region and interviewed many officials in the countries having a stake in the question of who should rule the South China Sea: The United States Navy as the guardian of free sea lines of communication in the busiest shipping area of the world? Or China in its effort to exploit a situation where the military and diplomatic influence of the US has passed its climax, in its endeavour to replace an international system dominated by the US by a multi-polar system with Beijing as a major player? The fact that huge deposits of oil and natural gas may lie hidden below the sea floor doesn’t make the answer any easier.

The sustained economic growth has given China the possibility to catch up in terms of military modernization: less numerous but smarter armed forces. This in turn has fueled a spectacular arms race in the region. Singapore eyes the prohibitively expensive US made Joint Strike Fighter as its next generation war plane. Kaplan and the officials he talked to in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan portray China as a growing threat that has to be kept in check. Even Vietnam, once an enemy of the United States, feels more at ease with the status quo – the American hegemony – than with a future dictated by China and makes the case for a long term US naval presence in the South China Sea.

While Kaplan’s book has its merits in explaining the different countries’ twisted relationship with China – he is looking back several hundred years in some cases – and their immediate geostrategic priorities, it fails to explain in more detail the Chinese point of view. We learn little about China’s objectives and its long term vision for the region. The possibility that China’s neighbours might succumb to “Finlandization” – submission through Chinese economic pressure – is mentioned, but Kaplan does not elaborate on it. China’s use of soft power to seduce other countries goes unnoticed. The author also fails to explore in an unbiased way the possibility of China exerting a benign regional hegemony similar to the European Union’s regional dominance over the Mediterranean Sea. China is hostile, full stop – that’s the credo.

Kaplan belongs to the Realist School of political science, established by Hans J. Morgenthau in the 1950s, seeing international relations primary as a struggle for supremacy and analyzing shifts in power balances in terms of strategic interests and the military, political and economic means to reach these goals. This school of thought has however severe limits when it has to explain a globalized world with multiple interdependencies, and Kaplan’s book was already at its publication in 2014 partly out of date in its insistence on conventional military power and its understanding of modern military strategy.

The author advances the argument of “the stopping power of water” to explain why invading a disputed territory is far easier than occupying it, especially when the territory is inhabited by a hostile population. This weakens his own case meant to illustrate China’s dangerous designs. At the same time he fails to see that China has developed, just like Russia, concepts for hybrid warfare: fostering low-intensity internal conflicts by exploiting economic, ethnic or cultural fault lines, disinformation and propaganda spread over social networks, clandestine sabotage acts, subversion of enemy forces and civil servants. This type of warfare is far more subtle and dangerous as it targets the social cohesion of the opponent’s civil society. Its study requires a much more encompassing view of international relations than the Realist School ever has developped.

In 2014 the Ukraine crisis was in full swing, it was and still is a blue-print for the partial success of Russia hybrid warfare, creating “frozen conflicts” that bind the enemy’s political and military resources, situations where the opponent cannot capitulate for political reasons on the one hand and on the other hand is not powerful enough to triumph over his aggressor. A low-intensity war of attrition, waged in the diplomatic and political arena, coupled with an occasional military show of force and the exploitation of ethnical tensions in countries like Malaysia or the Philippines are much more likely to be part of China’s foreign policy than brazen military interventions. The recent dispute over airline codes refering to “Taipei, Taiwan” instead of “Taipei, China” illustrate such an approach. The occupation of this or that reef, the blockade of an Asian competitor or the conquest of Taiwan may simply not be necessary for China to assert its dominance.

Kaplan’s mantra-like emphasis on China’s expanding navy as a proof of its aggressive goals is besides the point, and ironically the author delivers himself the key by quoting the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tsu: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. China can wait until the dominance of the South China Sea falls into its lap like a ripe fruit as the role of the US in world affairs is declining. Its modernized navy will not allow China to establish dominance, but to preserve it. Time is on China’s side and it has a notion of time different from ours. It is thinking in decades and centuries, not in legislative periods. Sun Tsu would be pleased to see that his teachings are still a guideline for Chinese policy makers.

Now this book is hard-nosed political science, no-nonsense stuff, a troubling look into the crystal ball. To this I would like to oppose the delightful and delicate music of a Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu:

Floating like dust – the sound of transcendence

Catching a Glimpse of God or Descending into Hell


Johanna Prader: Der gnostische Wahn. Eric Voegelin und die Zerstörung menschlicher Ordnung in der Moderne ISBN 978-3-85165-725-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Michael Henkel: Eric Voegelin. Eine Einführung. ISBN 978-3-88506-976-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The rise of autocratic politicians to power, the mobilization of masses for openly xenophobic or racist ideas, the radicalization of young people through extremism – this is something that deeply troubles me. My country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. Jews started to disappear soon afterwards. A few Luxembourg citizen openly supported the Nazi party. Some helped to implement the antisemitic ideology simply by turning a blind eye to what was happening. Few had the courage to actually do something about it. For me it is clear where the rise of autocratic and discriminating ideologies can lead to. We have been there before. In Germany, in the Soviet Union. In South Africa. In Ruanda.

But what are the mechanisms behind the mobilization of masses for extremist ideas? Why doesn’t mankind learn from history? I found answers in the works of a philosopher and political scientist who stood at the very beginning of the scientific institute where I studied political science: Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), the founder of the Institut für Politische Wissenschaften at the University of Munich. Voegelin’s works focus on the parallels between religion – creed would be the better word – and political ideologies. He left Germany in 1938 after he had spoken out against any ideology, be it based on race biology or on the struggle of classes, and made himself an enemy of the Nazis. He moved to the United States and came back after World War II to found the said scientific institute where I spent many hours between 1989 and 1994.

“God is dead”

Voegelin has become known as a virulent critic of modernity. “God is dead”, Zarathustra says in Friedrich Nietzsche’s monumental work “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, and that is part of the problem. According to Voegelin, humanity has gradually weakened the link between its political reality and the transcendental element, the concept of God. Humanity has since the Enlightenment tried to put man in the center of its world and tried to ignore that rationality can not give an answer to existential questions like the purpose of life. According to Voegelin however, man always has a longing for a transcendental idea, a longing for a creed, and at the beginning of the 20th century it has found it in communism, fascism and – to some degree – in liberalism.

Voeglin’s world where religion, philosophy and political science become interdependent disciplines is a fascinating one, although his works request some background knowledge of Europe’s history of ideas and of Europe’s philosophy. And that’s why I wanted to present here two books that are a short-cut into Voegelin’s world. Michael Henkel’s book is as much a biography as it is an introduction to the different concepts that Voeglin explores in his books: Austria’s autocratic constitution of 1934, religion and politics, the need for a new type of political sciences, gnostic sects as precursors of modern extremist ideologies, themselves necessary and sufficient condition for political system resulting in the violent oppression of non-believers.

Johanna Prader’s book focuses on the one concept at the center of Voegelin’s thinking: the gnosis. This concept has its origin in sects that saw the light at the same time as Christianism started to spread. It is characterized by a dualistic view of the world, a world divided into good and bad. The bad world being the one we live it at a given moment in time, the good world is an ideal construction that adherents to gnostic ideas want to build. They believe in a necessary apocalypse that must occur before the good world becomes a reality and they see themselves as the driving force behind an evolution towards this final battle.

St John, Marx, Hitler

And if this seems familiar, you are right. Such views are expressed in the Gospel of St John. Such views are expressed in Karl Marx’ “Das Kapital”. Such views are expressed in Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. While the Bible acknowledges the existential link between Man and God, the later two ideologies are anthropocentric and have replaced God by an idealized and inflated concept of man’s abilities.

Voegelin’s works have captured my interest, and I will dig my way through some of his works over the next months, without bothering the readers of this blog however. It is interesting to speculate about what Voegelin would think about political Islam, the rise to power of Donald Trump, a person – not even a politician – standing exclusively for his own, personal interests. Philosophy takes an ironic twist here. Voegelin assessed the British and the American society as the only modern societies having maintained the link to the transcendental element. If Voegelin could study Theresa May’s Not-so-United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s Even-less-United States, he would probably have been terrorized and scraped parts of his theory.

It’s all rather depressive, isn’t it? Relief is at hand. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, allows me to catch a glimpse of God (if he exists!) and keep the spectre of apocalypse at bay:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

Where Recep Tayyip Erdogan Comes From

turks today

Andrew Mango: The Turks Today. ISBN 978-0-7195-6595-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Andrew Mango’s biography of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was already a great intellectual pleasure, and the follow-up “The Turks Today” was just as fascinating. The first half of the book deal with history as you would expect it. A chronicle of important political developments from 1938, the year Atatürk died, up to the year 2003 when Turkey seemed ready to align itself on the policies of the European Union and to join it finally, after having waited for this moment for decades.

The second half of the book deals with a range of subjects not strictly political, but closely related to politics: the question of identity, of culture, education and Muslim faith, the leaps and setbacks Turkey witnessed in economic affairs, the differences between city and rural life and the desperate wish to be recognized as European country with a European tradition and a European future.

Even more than the biography of Atatürk this book helped me understand what conflicts dominate Turkish politics and the attitude towards the European Union. The book was published in 2003 and of course it does not cover more recent events like the failed military putsch, the demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul, the repression by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. It however explains where Erdogan comes from – politically speaking – and how he managed to turn Turkey into a state that seems to discards more and more of Atatürks liberal and open-minded legacy.

A synthesis of cultural ideas drawn from Turkey’s tradition and the avant-garde of French classical music can be found in Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s String Quartet No. 1 (Op. 27):

French avant-garde meets Sufi Mystics