Is the study of Karl Marx still relevant today? After all, all the communists regimes have fallen and failed, except for a few that persist amidst difficulties, and reading Marx today therefore seems irrelevant to us. Yet, there is much in Marx that can be drawn out if we know what his goals were.
Marx is known to us as the father of the communist doctrine, i.e. the socio-political regime founded on the proletariat after these had overthrown the capitalistic class. An aspect of the new form of society that Marx imagined is the equality of all resulting from the common possession of the means of production, ushering in a new age of happiness for all–as oposed to happiness only for the few capitalistic owners of the means of production. But this aspect only comes at the end of Marx’s analysis, it is what he thought the world should be. It is the product of a reflexion on how the ultimate utopian society would come into being. Marx’s interest lies primarily in the philosophy of History. For sure, his vision of history is typical of that of the 19th century man: History progressed in a straight line representing evolution from a primitive to an evolved, perfected stage or state of being.
Marx saw the birth of his own age–industrial capitalism–in the feudal society; rather, it is the end thereof that made the birth of capitalism possible. He sees the genesis of primitive capitalism when small artisans started to expand “exploitation of wage-labor and corresponding accumulation.” Yet, the feudal economic relationship and guilds prevented this capital from being turned into industrial capital. It is the end of the feudal regime that made this possible. Dixit Marx,
“These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society, with the expropriation and partial eviction of the country population. […] The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the east Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rost dawn of the era of capitalist production.
Capital, Vol. I, Chap. XXXI
Marx disliked the capitalist system of his age, with its colonialism. Marx saw it as unjust, half-way between savagery and civilization. the only way to humanize the system was through the proletarian revolution. Yet, he thought, even colonialism and free trade were necessary: the immense colonial empires carved out by the European powers would facilitate the exportation of the revolution (as Engels wrote in Protectiona and Free Trade. Colonialism and world trade were an historical opportunity, so to speak, to make the revolution worldwide. Thus, Marx saw in the conditions of his days the gate through which his utopian world could not only be born, but exported to all the world, and especially the ‘Oriental despotates,’ as well, the means by which others could be enlightened.
To come back to my original question: is Marx relevant today? He is, if we understand his philosophy of history, which was his main interest and focus. He saw European capitalism and colonialism as universal, and originated a materialist view of history, a view that was Eurocentric–the spread of its political and economic enlightenment to the world. This view has influenced many thinkers after him–not all marxist as we understand the word–such as Wallerstein for example. It is necessary to understand Marx if we want to understand all economic theories of the 19-20th centuries, and study their development; it is necessary if we want to study where we stand ourselves after him, and if we take from him the undeniable continuity between the feudal to the modern order. If we recognize that the world in which we live today is the product of European/American economic imperialism (in whateever way we understnad this), then we may see in Marx one of the first to realize it. Even if few of us are Marxist in the sense we understand it, we are nonetheless influenced by his theories even today.