Marx and the Threat of Inequality


The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe        0805 500 1974

In March 1983, the centenary of the death of the German revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx, was marked in Nigeria with a week-long conference at the Ahmadu Bello University campus in Zaria. The theme was Marx and Africa. That was seventeen years before Marx emerged as the “greatest thinker” of the last millennium in a BBC News Online Poll. Marx got more votes than influential philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes as well as famous scientists Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, who died only a few weeks ago.

Among the leading lights of the Nigerian Left vibrating with ideological disputations at the Zaria conference (who, sadly, are now dead) were scholars such as Ntiem Kungwai, Ola Oni, Claude Ake, Ikenna Nzimiro, Bade Onimode, Bala Usman, Festus Iyayi, Eskor Toyo and Rauf Mustapha.

It is certainly a measure of how much things have changed in the Nigerian public sphere that the bicentenary of the birth of Marx has hardly attracted   a similar interest as the one demonstrated at the centenary of his demise. If you mention Marx today to our petit-bourgeois intellectuals, their response would hardly be more than the vacuous chorus of “communism is dead” because of the 1989 Fall of Berlin Wall.

Ironically, at the headquarters of global capitalism, the bicentenary of Marx’s birthday is spurring a rethink of his ideas. Some are focussing on issues in which Marx got it “wrong” while the   argument of some others is to explain as the radical literary critic Terry Eagleton entitles his reprinted book, Why Marx was Right.

The thread in the appreciation of Marx in the last few months is that while as a thinker (of course, not a god!) he got some points wrong, his ideas, especially the critique of capitalism, cannot be ignored. For instance, The Economist of London in its online edition entitles an informed piece to mark the birthday of Marx like this: “Rulers of the World: Read Marx.” The decidedly right-wing journal is predictably critical of Marx in terms of what the thinker got wrong such as the supposition that socialist revolution would happen first in the advanced capitalist countries instead of the relatively backward Russia and China. It also points to the oversights on the part of Marx about the robust capacity of capitalism to reform itself and the emergence of the welfare state, which was helpful in the West especially after World War II.

However, ideologically literate elements of the Right would agree that the relevance of Marx still lies principally in his penetrating analysis of capitalism in which he acknowledged the achievements of the socio-economic system while laying bare its enormous contradictions. The faults that Marx identified in capitalism include its endemic crisis (the cycle of booms and busts); unemployment, inequality, social injustice and mass poverty. Human progress would continue to be hindered by these phenomena.

For example, on inequality alone capitalism simply has no definitive answer except rationalisation and the various neo-liberal experiments at “poverty reduction” since “poverty eradication” is often considered as utopian. Taking a global view of things, Robert Shiller, the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, said that the “most important problem we are facing now … is rising inequality.” This statement is hardly controvertible more than 160 years after Marx and his comrade, Friedrich Engel, wrote the Communist Manifesto. While the 1% at the top gets richer those at the bottom of the 99% get poorer.
In response, anti-capitalist protesters such as those in the Occupy Movement (who are mostly non-Marxist) have been resisting the trend. Inequality provides the rich substratum to feed right-wing populism and extreme nationalism. The retreat of the liberal order, which Donald Trump personifies, is actually being fuelled by the increasing inequality.

Inequality is, of course, worse in the poor countries of the south. For instance, in Nigeria at the root of the present climate of insecurity are the material issues of inequality and poverty. Although it is more convenient for the elite to wrap criminality with ethnic and religious labels, the material root of the crisis should be rigorously examined. To do that, politics of ideas must replace this politics of ethnic and religious manipulation in which thuggery reigns supreme and elections are conducted as bazaars.

Things could probably have been different if ruling political parties are convinced about the principles of the welfare provisions in the Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution. These constitutional provisions are supposed to be the Nigerian approach to reform its own brand of neo-colonial capitalism. Rather than pursue these provisions as ‘fundamental objectives and directive principle of state policy,” our bourgeois politicians and their lawyers are wont to tell you that the constitution implies that socio-economic rights are not “justiciable.” Hence inequality and social injustice remain the hallmarks of the system while politicians yearly celebrate their  “dividends of democracy” on May 29 amidst burgeoning poverty. By the way, Chapter II that was brought forward from the Second Republic Constitution came into existence largely as a concession to the principled efforts of two exemplary Marxists – Bala Usman and Segun Osoba – as members of the Constituent Assembly that debated the constitution.

Unfortunately, those in power playing politics are hardly passionate about implementing the existing laws that could widen the access to basic education, primary healthcare, social housing and cheap transportation. In a way, these anti-poverty laws are derivatives of Chapter II of the constitution. Their implementation would help in tackling inequality.
All told, you may ask this pertinent question: what is the relevance of Marx to the present Nigerian condition? The answer is simply this: at least Marx was right about the inevitability of inequality in capitalism.

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Not Yet the End of History

By Issa  Aremu
Last Saturday marked the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday. The great revolutionary philosopher was born in the city of Trier in Germany on the May 5, 1818.

Karl Marx espoused the theory of socialism and communism flowing from a time-tested critique of 19th century capitalism. Vladimir Lenin, (a lawyer) was the great Russian revolutionary Marxist of the 20th Century who (together with other Bolshevik revolutionaries) audaciously translated Marxist theory into political practice by overthrowing Tsarist dictatorship in 1917 and proclaimed first socialist state on earth.

Lenin summed up Marxism as “…. three main ideological currents of the nineteenth century, …represented by the three most advanced countries of mankind: classical German philosophy, classical English political economy, and French socialism combined with French revolutionary doctrines in general”.
Karl Marx died on March 14, 1883 in London. He was buried next to his wife at Highgate Cemetery in London, a globally acknowledged tourist destination. I visited Highgate Cemetery in company of my mentor, uncle, and the late Oxford University Marxist political economist, Dr Abdulrauf Mustapha in the early 90s! There is no dull moment at Highgate as visitors of different left ideological persuasions in turn queued for photo opportunity at the graveside of a great humanist thinker. Even Marx’s ideological opponents acknowledged him for giving the world an integrated alternative theory and program of transformation and development.

Marx’s seminal works   on great themes such as  “revolution”, “class struggle”, “socialism and communism” include Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in Summer (1844), Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology (with Engels, who became his lifelong friend), The Communist Manifesto  (1848), Value, Price and Profit given (1865), Capital (1867).

One essential idea of Karl Marx is revolution.
According to Marx,  “revolution is the motive force of history”, in which the oppressed alienated masses would inevitably overthrow their few oppressors. “The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles” is, perhaps, the most popular quote of Marx.

The socialist revolution is still a polemical question among Marxists. Led by the working class as envisaged by Marx (and proclaimed by the   Bolsheviks in 1917) or led by the peasants as in Mao Tse-tung’s China? What is however clear is that it was Karl Marx, through historical and dialectical materialist analysis that showed scientifically that “Revolutions are the locomotives of history”.

The world is still-hunted by the spectre of revolution (even if not socialist or communistic!) Of course, there have been scores of revolutions inspired by Marxism, from the Russian revolution to the Chinese revolution led by Chairman Mao, from the Vietnamese revolution led by Ho Chi Minh to the Cuban Revolution led by the legendary Fidel Castro. Even the Iranian Revolution, which took spiritual dimension, had its root in oppressive and exploitative social relations of the old monarchy. All the liberation movements in Africa, from Ghana to Angola, Algeria to Namibia drew inspirations from Marxism.

In his classic,  Long walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela noted: “Marxism’s call to revolutionary action was music to the ears of a freedom fighter.  The idea that history progresses through struggle and that change occurs in revolutionary jumps was similarly appealing.  In my reading of Marxist works, I found a great deal of information that bore on the types of problems that face a practical politician. Marxists gave serious attention to national liberation movements, and the Soviet Union in particular supported the national struggles of many colonial peoples”.

The revolts of the Arab spring from Tunisia to Libya and Egypt to Yemen show that it’s not yet the end of history of revolutions. Just last month, massive street protests forced the Armenia’s long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan to resign.

The late Nigerian Marxist political economist, Professor Claude Ake, long wrote almost prophetically about Revolutionary Pressures in Africa  (1978). The current Somalian failed state, the endless wars of attrition in South Sudan, mass graves in DRC Congo and the cancerous bloody Boko Haram war in Nigeria’s North East point to the validity of the scientific observation of Ake that “…the choice for Africa is not between capitalism and socialism after all, but between socialism and barbarism”!
The collapse of Soviet communism and central planning in former eastern Europe and Africa (Benin Republic, Ethiopia) in 1990, made the likes of the American political economist, Francis Fakuyama to proclaim the “End of History,” in the title of his famous book, declaring with outlandish verdict the triumph of global capitalism, the market and liberal democracy.

However, we witnessed the deafening collapse of international capitalism in 2008 (in the United States following the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers). Yet no one has proclaimed the end of ideology of capitalism. On the contrary, the desperate return to socialist solutions, namely state interventions through nationalisation of private losses and unprecedented stimulus public spending further confirms that footloose capitalism as analysed by Marx without state support would collapse on its greedy terms.

Conversely, the continuous transformation of socialist China with, dramatic lifting of millions out of poverty and creative mix-bag of state/market models of development shows that it is not yet the end of Marxism.
No doubt,  “socialism” collapsed under the weight of cult of personality, absence of democracy and dictatorship of one party in former USSR. But not without unprecedented industrialisation including space technology that put the first human on the moon.

Marx was possibly the first internationalist in theory and practices. “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains ‘ was as his clarion call on international labour movement to confront global capital and promote decent work? The world today agonises over the great divide between the few rich and increasing poor billon bottom without acknowledging Marx who long foresaw it.
Karl Marx long envisioned a world in which the law of social relations would be “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, not his greed.

Certainly he would not have imagined the viciousness of such a class struggle in today’s world in which there is so much for the greed of few but little for the needs of many!
Karl Marx wrote about “primitive capital accumulation” arising from plain robbery and slavery rather than exploitation of labour surplus value in production.
How would Marx describe today the OXFAM revelations according to which in Nigeria, between 1960 and 2005, about $20 trillion was stolen from the treasury by public office holders, the amount said to be larger than the GDP of United States in 2012 (about $18 trillion)?