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THE eulogy given by Engels at Marx’s grave in 1883 may be more than touched by grieving. But was it over the top?
“Charles Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature upon our planet. Marx is the discoverer of the fundamental law according to which human history moves and develops itself, a law so simple and self-evident that its simple enunciation is almost sufficient to secure assent.”
Those who denigrate evolution say: “But it’s only a theory.” And so it is.
But Darwinism, as a working device to understand how species adapt and change over time due to sexual selection and adaptive benefits, is comparable to Marxism. The insight that labour is the source of all value, that people as a group tend to do what benefits them as a group and that the course of history is very much influenced by these things is just as powerful.
A scientific law is thought of as the description of an observed phenomenon, which does not explain the phenomenon. That is where scientific theory comes in. Facts, laws, theories and hypotheses are distinct things. One doesn’t become the other or grow into it.
Much of Marx’s thinking is a statement about an observed phenomenon, which in the minds of most scientists ought to make it a law, but scientific laws are often mathematical descriptions of natural phenomenon — for example, Newton’s Law of Gravity.
The more contested Marx’s thinking has become, the more we shy away from using the term “laws,” but Marx more than adequately explained why the phenomenon that is capitalism works the way it does.
Arguably, Engels should have dubbed Marxism, like Darwinism, a Theory of Exploitation and How It Drives History. Marx never said that full communism would end human conflict, merely that it would end the systemic political conflict between economic classes — class struggle as a driver.
This has become lost to us since science, behavioural studies and economics, like so many sciences, have become detached from each other and from society.
Contemporary social psychology, which looks at the way human behaviour is influenced by others, has been itself strongly influenced by the work of Muzaffar Sharif, a theorist of group dynamics.
Running a US summer camp in the 1950s, he brought a group of boys together, allowed them to make friends, then separated them into two factions to compete for a prize. He believed they would forget their friendships and start demonising one another, but a manufactured end would come after a forest fire so that, when faced with a shared threat, the group would be forced to work as one team again.
Sharif believed that competition over scarce resources could drive people to enmity but place a common obstacle in their way and they co-operate. During his youth, he had witnessed devastating inter-ethnic violence between Turks, Greeks and Armenians. What is known as the “Robbers’ Cave experiment” is still thought of as one of the best-known examples of realistic conflict theory, although doubts about its scientific rigour now apply.
Why humans are prone to co-operate puzzles biologists, psychologists and economists alike. Between-group conflict is even thought to drive within-group co-operation. Altruism seems to be hard-wired into us, even in a commodity-dominated economy. The evolution of co-operation among unrelated individuals is a fundamental issue being studied in the biological and social sciences.
Marx never aimed to paint a picture of the world as divided between the pleasant but stupid worker and the vicious and evil capitalist.
What followers of The Simpsons would today think of as Homer and Mr Burns!
The system damages everyone, even those with enormous power and wealth. Marx the thinker was truly curious about humanity and the concept of alienation that he developed did not come out of thin air.
Alienation is a term rooted in the desire to rationally explain odd kinds of human behaviour that can certainly be traced to at least the 12th century BC.
Early attempts to elaborate a discipline that we might call “psychology” saw the old word “alienist” — a mind doctor — emerge from the Latin root word alienare, meaning to make strange.
When Marx referred to opium in the famous passage about religion, which he penned in 1843, it is highly likely that his contemporary knowledge of the work of alienists informed the sketching out of his own notion of alienation. And perhaps how opium was then used to keep babies quiet during the night — and even mature men with carbuncles! There was no term for what he had in mind, so he had to invent or adapt one.
If he were writing today, perhaps we might say he could just as well have coined the term “psycho-social distress” instead!
He was well on the way to understanding what was behind much of what we would today call toxic behaviour when he connected this idea to what earlier thinkers about economics had put forward — the idea that labour (strictly speaking labour power) and capital (also carefully defined) are the only two elements in the market.
The supply and “price” of the former is related to population levels and tends to fluctuate around absolute subsistence levels. For Marx and earlier thinkers, labour is the only source of value.
It’s really a very simple idea yet proves often to be the idea most difficult to accept or grasp. For acting out the laws of economics is largely an act without comprehension.
But, much like the way working people became increasingly suspicious of New Labour or the EU, most workers emotionally divine that there’s something not quite right about the way a boss makes money out of them.
The learned professors of economics think supply and demand, and profit and loss, are key drivers of the economy and rarely speak of Marx, if they do so at all, without dismissiveness.
Any debate about Marx and his life always seems to try to pose the early Marx against the late Marx and that is as pointless as trying to isolate those pages of Capital that speak about capitalism’s inevitable doom to make a case for how outdated he is.
Marx developed himself as he tried to understand the world around him and so too can we. He left a legacy of thinking that is focused on the reality of the here and now. The complexities of that process are not the point. Rather, it is where our ideas come from and what we do with them that matters. At the heart of a very human personality lay a very real understanding of what it means to be a human.
Graham Stevenson is Midlands district secretary of the Communist Party and a trustee of the Marx Memorial Library.
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