Marx at 200: “The best hated and most calumniated man of his time”


PHOTO/The News International

As the world commemorates the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx, the author reminds us of how this great German political philosopher was and still is a divisive figure on all sides of the political divide.

The destiny

of iron


and sugar

and red copper and textiles

and love and cruelty and life

and all the branches of industry

and the sky

and the blue ocean,

of sad riverbeds

and plowed earth and cities

will be changed one morning

one sunrise when, at the edge of darkness,

pushing against the earth, with their heavy hands,

they rise up.

Many things were said of them,

and of them

it was said

they have nothing to lose but their chains.

(Nazim Hikmet: Human Landscapes from my Country)

You can love him; you can hate him; you can ignore him. It is not going to make a difference to modern history’s most formidable thinker Karl Marx and his extraordinary legacy that has disturbed the slumber of wealth-owning classes for longer than a century and a half and will continue to do so as long as class inequalities exist. Marx was hardly a popular man in his lifetime; therefore, it would be unfair to expect him to be venerated by posterity; but, there is not one social thinker or movement whether on the right or the left that can honestly claim not to be influenced or affected by Marx’s thought.

Marx is a theorist; like Newton, Darwin or any other great scientists. That is how he saw himself: as a theorist of politics, society and history. As a theorist his great contribution is to add economy to every other discipline: “that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” There is a scientific authority and rigour to his analysis that refuses to be opposed on any easy terms. But like all great writers, such as Freud later, Marx cannot resist the temptation to be a literary artist, an aspect of his personality that he is careful to suppress when writing Capital which is stylistically bland and perhaps the most admired and least read of his work.

One of my personal favourites is the lyrical exposition of alienated labour in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 where, as Marx notes: “the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself.” This comparison of alienated labour with alienation of the self where a person invests in God at the expense of his own self is developed in other early works as well.

In Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction, Marx says: “man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again…. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”

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