Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Karl Marx and the spectre of fascism

Despite Karl Marx's dire predictions, capitalism has had spectacular success with economic growth

The 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx last Saturday has led to a spate of articles about the guru of revolution, many critical, some adulatory. Let us, as Deng Xiaoping exhorted us, seek truth from facts.

Marx was no ivory-tower intellectual, one of his most famous quotes being, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." Measured by that yardstick, Marx has been a dismal failure.

Look all around you and you will see the triumph of capitalism, Marx’s lifelong adversary. Regimes that called themselves Marxist have either bitten the dust or embraced capitalism with gusto, while maintaining an Orwellian façade of socialism. Communist parties are pale pink shadows of their former selves.

Despite Marx’s dire predictions, capitalism has had spectacular success with economic growth. It has lifted millions out of poverty. Its technological achievements have been stupendous. Its track record in protecting democracy has been far better than the sordid regimes that claimed Marx’s ideological mantle.

Yet curiously, some of Marx’s descriptions of capitalism sound extraordinarily modern. Consider this passage from the Communist Manifesto: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere... All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations." There can hardly be a better description of the global economy today.

The underlying logic of capitalism remains the same, its “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation." Indeed, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and no friend of Marxism, said in a recent speech, “If you substitute platforms for textile mills, machine learning for steam engines, Twitter for the telegraph, you have exactly the same dynamics as existed 150 years ago when Karl Marx was scribbling the Communist Manifesto." Carney was worrying about the automation of jobs and its impact on employment and inequality. Inequality, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out, is now at levels last seen in the 1920s. The advanced economies have been pruning their social safety nets. In developing countries, millions of workers are deserting unviable farms and, without decent jobs in the cities, eke out a precarious existence in fetid city slums. Job security has long vanished. Financialization has led to a global casino economy. Debt has soared to alarming levels. Financial crises are becoming bigger and more frequent.

Is the time ripe for a rebirth of Marx? The Bank of England governor seems to think so. But where are the proletarians, where is that heroic class Marx said would be the gravedigger of capitalism? Even the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression was unable to breathe life into the Left.

Instead, the contradictions of capitalism have been exploited by a resurgent neo-fascist right wing, manipulating racial, religious and cultural divides to advance their poisonous brand of ultra-nationalism. Capitalism is a violent process, because “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." People uprooted, disoriented and left behind by the onward march of capitalism are the foot soldiers of fascism. Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State under Clinton, has written a bestseller called Fascism: A Warning, in which she says that today’s right-wing populist strongmen, who have come to power in many countries by promising all things to all people, could easily become tomorrow’s fascists. Albright says many nations could be on the road to fascism, without their people knowing it yet. That is because, as The New Yorker’s review of her book put it, “Mussolini’s political strategy...was to pluck a chicken one feather at a time, so that each squawk will be heard separately and the whole process is kept as quiet as possible."

The spectre that is haunting the world today is not Communism. It’s Fascism.

Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Respond to this column at manas.c@livemint.com

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