TEN years ago, the finest brains in the world debated Karl Marx’s ideas on the occasion of his 19th death anniversary. It is now his 175th birth anniversary, but he ignored as a 19th century fossil. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern rope, it is commonplace to say it capitalism has-defeated Marxism and that is that.
This may be fundamentally true, but is misleading. The capitalism which Marx, condemned bears no resemblance to capitalism today. In Marx’s, youth, western society was outrageously unfair and heartless.
Little children aged six or seven were sent down dark coal mines to 11 coal carts on their hands and knees. Factories worked employees hours a week ( 12 hours a day excluding-Sundays) for subsistence wages. There was no public education and so workers were kept illiterate and without any possibly of moving up the social scale matter how bright they were .There was no public health and so poor died like flies when they ill. There were no safety regulation in industry and so workers were constantly maimed or killed at work. The upper classes had a stranglehold on wealth as well as on political power, and enacted laws to enrich themselves at the expense of others. It was an,odious system which repelled anybody who cared for humanity, as Marx did.
The western system which today has beaten Marxism is totally different. It is the market-driven welfare state. In the west, the share of GNP spent on the aged, sick and unemployed is higher than the share of profits. Welfare is the Biggest form of government spending by far in supposedly capitalist countries. The biggest shareholders are- not capitalists but the pension funds of company employees, which control trillions of dollars. Public health has reduced mortality and disease dramatically. Public education means that people from the poorest families can aspire to reach the top on the basis of sheer merit. There are regulations galore to curb the depredations of businessmen seeking to profit by exposing workers and consumers to health and environmental hazards. Democracy ensures that there is no ruling class that can ignore the masses. This socio-economic system retains market forces to maximise efficiency in production, but has extensive arrangements to take care of those left out by markets-the aged, sick, and poor.
What accounts for the transformation of capitalism over the last century? For a start, Marx himself. His writings were read in every country, taught in every university, and had a tremendous impact. The world over, millions of youngsters, myself included, read ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, and it hit us between the eyeballs as a dazzling revelation of a great truth. It had intellectual force, but above all it pulled at our heartstrings, painting a picture of a brave new world where ancient historical wrongs would be set right by the magical power of people coming together. The great attraction of Marx had little to do with his more complex economic or philosophical theories-few people ploughed through the boring, flawed pages of Das Kapital. But The Manifesto could transport us into ecstasy because it sprang from the wellspring of humanity and brotherhood, and made us feel part of the march of the people to man the barricades in a glorious fight against tyranny. This humanity and brotherhood remained ingrained in our thinking long after we saw the many flaws in Marxism, which den generated into murder and torture in the pursuance of a bankrupt theory.
The rise of the welfare state in the West owed a great deal to the universal ideals Marx spoke of and the challenge posed by the rise of Marxism in the Soviet Union. The most odious aspects of the old capitalism were reformed one by one. The needs of the people gradually gained ascendancy over the needs of entrenched lobbies.
Different western countries became laboratories for different mixtures of economic and political philosophy. Out of these laboratories emerged the market-driven welfare state. And the success of this model finally spelled the doom of Marxism.
Marx was not wrong about predicting the death of the capitalism of his day. That heartless form of. capitalism was indeed a born loser. But it lost not to Marxism but to the welfare state. To Karl Marx goes a fair share of the credit for converting capitalism from a loser into a winner. His sense of humanity influenced the transformation of an exploitative system into one giving the masses a fair share of-rights and self-esteem. In that sense, the triumph of the welfare state over Marxism denotes, an unwitting victory for Marx. Marxists may claim exclusive rights over him, but he is in fact integral part of the liberal tradition. All Marxists did was to convert him into a God and his writings into a religion, complete with mantras.
There is an irony in this. Adam Smith once said that capitalists are an odious lot, but capitalism is a good system. The converse is also true. Marxism may be odious, but Karl Marx was a great.