Two revolutionaries, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, each in his own way revolutionized the prevailing mode of thinking in sociology and science in the 19th century. While Darwin’s Theory of Evolution brought about a quiet rethinking in natural sciences, Marx’s ideas of historical materialism and class struggle served the radicals well to divide the human societies and set off conflagrations.
Darwin did not have a definitive idea about what kind of theory would emerge from analysis of the huge mass of data he was gathering until long after he finished gathering and sifting it; whereas Karl Marx, along with his friend Friedrich Engels, published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, revealing their minds long before Das Kapital came out in 1867. Though both the works of Darwin and Marx had a long period of gestation, this sequence of events makes one wonder whether some objectivity was compromised in the material gathered by Marx, to suit his theory. However, it is to the eternal credit of Marx that he labored nearly 16 hours a day, year after year for sixteen years, in the British Museum, with single minded devotion to his cause, in spite of terrible distractions like ill health and abject poverty, for producing Kapital. However, Kapital is not an easy book to read with its jargon, loosely connected paragraphs, incoherent ideas, digressions and its boring style.
Marx prided himself in saying that he used the ‘scientific method’ in his work. His friend Engels went on to say: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic Nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” Marx stated that economic phenomena can be watched and recorded with the precision proper to natural science. Marx thought that by tying his theory of historical class struggle to Darwin’s theory of ‘Struggle for existence’ in organic populations, the former would get some scientific respectability. Indeed, it caught the imagination of toiling masses of humanity in the 19th century.
The core of Marx’s theory in ‘Das Kapital’ is the idea of ‘Surplus value’ while the driving force that leads to revolution, is the idea of dialectical materialism. Both these ideas were not his original ideas. Following Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the great economists, he asserted that labor is the source of all value. He took from Smith the definition of capital as “certain amount of labor amassed and kept in reserve.” Likewise, he took the suggestion of Ricardo that the price of any commodity is determined by the amount of labor that goes into it. Using these ideas Marx developed his Theory of Surplus Value which accuses the capitalist of extracting more value from the workers than the value of the wages paid to them. Therefore, a struggle would ensue between he capitalist class and the working class in which the workers would succeed in overthrowing the capitalists and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. He predicted that this would be the inevitable consequence of the Capitalist system.
Any careful observer can see how deficient Marx’s system is. He did not attach any value either to science and technology or to the role of entrepreneur in organizing and producing. It is as if unskilled laborers get together and produce steel, fertilizers, chemicals, computers and airplanes by dint of their sheer manual labor unaided by other factors of production.
Marx argues in his book that dictatorship of the proletariat is only an intermediate stage after which a classless society in which all will be equals, happy and contented will emerge, but history proved otherwise. What we saw in the erstwhile Soviet Union was dictatorship of the communist party dominated by a few or a single individual but not of the proletariat. It did not usher in the kind of a peaceful and egalitarian society in which all are happy and contented as Marx dreamed. It turned out that a handful of powerful people enjoyed the fruits of revolution and millions of the rest led miserable regimented lives with poverty and oppression by the communist party.
Nevertheless, while recognizing the fallacies in Marx’s thought, we cannot deny the great impact it had on our times. By emphasizing the abuses of industrial system and by playing up the danger of workers’ revolution, he forced some fundamental reforms to be made, thereby diminishing the likelihood of proletarian revolutions in many parts of the world.
It is doubtful whether any other figure in history provoked more contradictory opinions than Karl Marx. Some bitterly criticized him saying that in the name of human progress, Marx caused more death, misery and despair than any other man who ever lived, while others venerated him as the savior of working class. What then, is the secret of Marx’s influence over millions of earth’s inhabitants? He was the symbolic leader of the have-nots in their struggle against the haves. As Harold Laski said he was moved by the passion for justice. Thus, the man who lived himself in dire poverty gave the world the hope for abolition of poverty. That is the way in which he changed the economic thinking of modern world through his Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto.