By Adagbo ONOJA
At a time when otherwise established global players such as the London based The Economist are seeking re-validation of their own overarching ideological conviction by opening its Open Future space, for example, the 200th birthday of Karl Marx is bound to be a global event reflecting the global controversy called Marx himself. The shrill cry for emancipation in his hair raising advocacy or clarion call for a response to capitalism positions him permanently as point of entry as well as point of departure for multiple interpreters of his works in a world in which no one is sure anymore. In this case, the status quo have found in Marx the reference point for the survival of capital more than even the various contending practitioners enacting Marxism in all corners of the globe. The Early Warning function in terms of inherent contradictions of capitalism that he ended up providing capitalists has made him most helpful to them as much as the revolutionaries he wrote for. It is not surprising that ‘they’ read Marx. Time once said the world is in need of another Marx and it added, “perhaps a less troublesome one”. And, in his very sharp review of Terry Eagleton’s substantial work, Why Marx was Right, Francis Wheen (Financial Times, 27/05/11) quotes what a banker told The New Yorker in 1998 that “the longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right”. Without Marx, capitalism might have staggered to its early death just as Marx has also saved humanity because capitalism would not have staggered to its early death without carrying along a huge chunk of the world.
That is the complexity of the totality of Marx’s engagement with capitalism that it must be troubling to Marxists and Marxologists that positivism is reducing the debate on Marx and Marxism to the binarism of right or wrong. The immensity of his works and the empirical vigour with which he set about substantiating his claims naturally make his works so crucial to understanding how the world works. But, it is not what Marx wrote that matters as much as how we interpret him. What he wrote in the 19th century could not have meant the same thing to the revolutionaries in Russia in 1917, their counterparts in China in 1949, their friends in Cuba in 1959 and radical critics across Africa in the aftermath of the independence year of 1960. If this were not the case, then we would not have such things as Christian Socialism, labour parties, Wall Street readers of Marx, Islamic Socialism, ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. Or the interpretation by some communist parties that there could be no Socialist revolution in Africa but, at best, a nationalist revolution, the reasoning which underpinned the virtual handing over of communists to their traducers and the fate that befell them in certain countries in Africa.
Yet, it is these and the amendments they amount to that today constitutes Marxism: the theory and practice according to Marx. In all these, he was read from the standpoint of those doing the reading rather than the letters of his works. In that case, the notion of right or wrong is part of the positivist ontological infrastructure and it is a threat to praxis.
Terry Eagleton, the Oxford Professor of Literature must have inaugurated that culture with the title of his book: Why Marx was right. The New York Times seems to have taken over this week from Eagleton with the piece by the Seoul based Philosopher whose celebration of the 200th anniversary of Marx was titled “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx, You Were Right”. The piece was read as a challenge to the opponents whose own tributes were almost all titled “Marx, You Were Wrong”. Peter Singer, formerly the Oxford scholar of global ethics went provocative with the title of his own tribute, “Is Marx Still Relevant”. Marx is to blame for all these by forgetting to add that capitalism would destroy the world but at the behest of positivism, the meta-theoretical framework invented for the study of capitalism or, better still, of the world created in the image of capitalism.
Without that warning, his works and his name has been dragged into the atrocities that reading/misreading of his arguments resulted into. This is what Samir Amin was bringing to the fore when he wrote in CODESRIA Bulletin, (1994, No. 3) that “Marxism thus ended up advocating, in the name of rationalised management based on knowledge of these laws, (laws of history which it turned into a set of implacable rules identical to the inexorable laws of the natural sciences)”. Earlier than Amin, the Frankfurt scholars had critiqued Marxism or Socialism for the same reason: scientism that repudiated the role of agency in human affairs. It then contested essential Marxism with reflexivity. In all cases, it was not Marx per se but those of us reading Marx in theological fashions, taking a body of arguments to be sacrosanct, reading them in an uncomplicated universalist mode, the very sort of thing Marx anticipated and cautioned against.
Right or wrong, rise and fall, ‘we’ and ‘them’, black and white and similar binary pairs are all problematic products of the positivist temperament which the emotional attachment to Marxism among some people has allowed into the interpretation of claims Marx developed at the infancy of capitalism. Such Marxists are trapped into essentialising Marx even in the 21st century when Marx himself would certainly have been writing differently if he were engaging capitalism in its current level of development as a completely global system. Class struggle is not rubbish but where would we classify the ‘Occupy Movement’ today if we are stuck with classical Marxist conception of classes in terms of property relations? What is property now in the current phase of global capitalism?
In this wise, it is very advisable to pay attention to new conceptions of the contradictions of global capitalism and how to resolve them. One of such must be the theory and practice of Emancipation and the way it deepens class struggle by centralising conveyor belts of structural violence and unequal power relations as the threats to human dignity and freedom. Structural violence breeds ‘unnoticed screams’ that are not heard as class oppression but which explodes in ways that we find difficult to live with. For example, Rwanda! Subalternity enthusiasts in International Relations are still up in arms against Emancipation, saying that Emancipation is anti-statism but that ‘Third World’ states cannot survive without powerful states. Emancipation theorists have countered with how the opposition of communitarians and traditionalists to such currents as cosmopolitanism and universalism makes them complicit in authoritarian localism. The debate rages but from that debate, something would emerge in terms of how we do not get to rationalising structural violence by default.
In all cases, a theory of Emancipation rejects determinism in favour of reflexivity and thus saves Marxists from unconscious complicity in oppression because of a belief that class struggle is all that makes sense, without the advantage of the ‘reflexivity turn’ to detect when the great revolution we think we might be doing could have gotten stuck somewhere and in great need of rethinking. Marx would not be held liable for such complicity but our habit of thinking that ignores why much of the contradictions are framed in terms different from the ones that we the Marxists insist they must be couched before it merits our attention. In other words, paying attention to multiple realities is what Emancipation demands and it is consistent with Marxism because it is a product of critical theory as enunciated by those who argue very correctly that “every theory is for someone and for some purpose”?
Happy birthday to Karl Marx, all time researcher, scholar, advocate of emancipation and activist of the power of the people! This philosopher has interpreted the world, the point now is to read him more contextually and stop embarrassing him with our snappy conclusions. On that note, may we spare a minute thinking about Professor Abubakar Momoh but without crying? Who knows, Abu Momoh might just be in the kind of ‘civilised conversation’ that emancipationists talk about but this time between him, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Festus Iyayi, Baba Eskor Toyo and many others. They probably have gone to visit Baba Mandela and they might even be doing very well. It would be a year later this month when Abu Momoh died after the briefest illness ever there could be. May he remain as restless ‘there’ as he was ‘here’! Amen!