By Owei Lakemfa
Humanity, on September 14, 2017, reached a milestone – the 150th year that Das Kapital by German thinker, Karl Marx, was published. Understandably, it was not marked worldwide. Yet, the ideas propounded in the book changed and shaped the 20th Century – from the Great Revolutions of Russia in 1917 through that of the 1949 Chinese Revolution to the unforgettable Cuban Revolution a decade later.
The ideas of Das Kapital produced many of the romantic figures of the 20th Century into the present age – Vladimir Uylanov Lenin, George Orwell, Chairman Mao Tse Tung, Pablo Picasso, Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevera, Tony Benn, Marshal Josef Tito, Angela Davis, Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel, Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara. The ideas propelled the liberation struggles in Africa and turned the whole of Latin America into a huge theatre of struggle by the oppressed. Indeed, in the last hundred years, in many parts of the world wherever the poor rose in arms, the ideas of Marx and his soul mate, Friedrich Engels, resonated. The poor take to heart, Marx’s position that: “Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other, men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis…” So poverty and want are man made and the poor can change the system.
If international politics has been characterised in the last hundred years by the rivalry between the West and the East, and shaped by ‘Cold War’ politics, Das Kapital and the ideas it espoused are at the source.
The Industrial Revolution, which replaced feudalism began in Britain, and Marx went to that country, spending thirty years studying this phenomenon, especially the condition of workers. He came to the conclusion that labour is the most vital resource but that it has been reduced into a commodity. It is this that informs the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC)’s motto: “Labour Creates Wealth”.
Applying the Evolution of Nature, the History of Human Development, the Logic of Philosophy, the Science of Economics and the Sociology of Human Relations, especially at the work place, to his research, Marx wrote Das Kapital. His summary was that new classes had developed; the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeoisie (capitalist class). He said the new system of capitalism is based on exploitation and that just as the slavery age (slaves versus slave owners) gave way to the feudal system (serfs versus landlords), so will the capitalist system (working class versus capitalists) give way to the socialist system, which will transform into the communist system (the classless or stateless society). In other words, that humanity is moving from lower to higher stages. And, that each stage has its ideas (thesis), which contain its own seeds of destruction (antithesis), and that the clash between the thesis and antithesis, will create the synthesis (socialism) that will lead to the classless society.
Marx analysed that the capitalist would always want to exploit labour to maximise profit, which would lead to resistance and the overthrow of the capitalist system. So, capitalism is, in essence, producing its grave diggers.
At the burial of Marx on March 17, 1883, Engels explained the import of Marx: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc…”
Only the first volume of Das Kapital was published in his lifetime; the job of editing and publishing the two other volumes in 1885 and 1894 respectively, fell on Engels.
The fourth volume on surplus value, which Marx had written, was later edited by philosopher, Karl Kautsky and published from 1905 to 1910 in three parts as, Theories of Surplus Value.
Czarist Russia considered the ideas of socialism and communism quite dangerous, so it banned all books on them but made an exception of Das Kapital, which it considered a scientific publication that could only be relevant to capitalist societies, not a feudal one like Russia. In any case, reasoned the Czarist authorities, “very few people in Russia will read it, and even fewer will understand it”.
But it was a grave mistake, as Russian revolutionaries turned to devouring it. It was Das Kapital that influenced Lenin, the man who brought Marx fully alive to the world by updating his ideas and putting them into practice in carrying out the 1917 Russian Revolution. A biographer, Ted Sprague wrote that: “The pages of Das Kapital opened Lenin’s eyes… Marx’s ideas took a firm hold of him; they finally gave him an understanding of the society he was living in.”
Lenin was the person who updated the theories of Marx on capitalism and the inevitable globalisation that would follow, explaining that the capitalist system had transformed into imperialism. He titled his book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin, on the eve of the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, also wrote the book, The State and Revolution, to explain Marx within the context of practical politics and democracy.
When, as an undergraduate in University of Ife, I joined the radical student organisations, the Movement for National Advancement (MONA) and the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS), I strived to understand Marxism. Christos Theodropoulos, a Greek in the Law Department, told a friend, Adeolu Ademoyo and I, that we cannot understand the ideology unless we studied Das Kapital. We were Art students taking no Political Science, Sociology or Philosophy courses and not being comfortable with economics, so we wondered how we would digest such fat volumes. Christos offered to take us through the volumes. So on Sunday mornings, we met with him, and soon enough, we could lead our fellow members in MONA and ALPS in studying Marxism.
Perhaps, one of the most demonised persons in history is Karl Marx as the capitalist world, for over 160 years, has sustained a campaign against him, his ideas and his books. But this appears to have failed because his ideas continue to inspire. When on Friday, October 1, 1999, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced the result of its worldwide poll on the ‘Greatest Thinker of the Millennium’, Marx easily won by a large margin, with another socialist, Albert Einstein coming a distant second followed by Sir Isaac Newton, an Owenite Socialist. Significantly, the fourth place went to Charles Darwin, the scientist who propounded the theory of Human Evolution and Natural Selection in his book, The Origin of Species. This had influenced the major ideas of Dialectical Materialism in Das Kapital.
So long as capitalism, globalisation and socialism exist, so shall Das Kapital remain pointedly relevant.
Owei Lakemfa, former Secretary General of African Workers is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.