Clara Barros/Staff Writer
On May 5, 1818, a man who would change the world was born. Last week, 200 years later, we celebrated not just his birthday, but the richness of his legacy — a man whose intellectual capacities were undoubtedly among the greatest that ever existed.
Yes, I’m talking about Karl Marx. I know what you’re thinking—“crazy communist!” —so, before anything, let me clarify something.
There is a popular belief that Marx was a theorist of communism; that he idealized a utopia and proposed a model for how society should function.
This is a severe misconception.
Of the more than 50 complete works authored by Marx and his intellectual and political partner, Friederich Engels, no more than a few paragraphs are dedicated to describing how they envisioned “communism” — their term for a classless, stateless, and free society.
This lack of explanation is no coincidence. It is because Marx’s own method would have made such a description impossible. You see, Marx was not the first to think of socialism or communism—many others advocated for it in the past. His novelty was making it scientific.
As a social scientist, Marx sought to understand reality from the perspective of its concrete, material conditions — not from ideas, beliefs, or consciousness. He understood that ideas come from the concrete world, rather than the other way around.
Even if Marx wanted to talk about communism, then the fact is that he could not — precisely because he would be simply inventing it, creating it from his imagination, without any material basis. Marx knew nothing of communism — and neither do we know it.
As scientists, we cannot describe what doesn’t yet exist.
That being said, what Marx did was look at the objective reality surrounding him. Witnessing the results of the Industrial Revolution and the consolidation of capitalism, what he saw was the most abject misery.
He saw workers working for 14 hours a day, dying in unfit housing and unsanitary conditions, barely making enough to survive— all the while the factory owners’ profit increased. After a lifetime of studying closely and empirically the working class, he concluded that exploitation was built-in the system.
You might find yourself saying: “But this is all in the past” or “things have changed.”
Let’s see. How are our phones and laptops made? They’re made with the mineral cobalt. Who collects it? Children in Congo, as young as four years old, with bare hands, in the brink of starvation— as documented by Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Apple’s has recorded highest ever profits in 2018.
How are our clothes made? Check your own tag: they’re made by garment workers in sweatshops in Haiti, Mexico, Bangladesh, Vietnam.
Two years ago, 8000 Cambodian workers under the control of H&M collapsed due to malnutrition and excessive hours; they were paid about $100 per month. H&M’s revenues were over $25 billion that year.
Wealth disparities are increasing at a global level, leading to unprecedented levels of inequality.
A 2017 study showed that a handful of millionaires—0.7 percent of the world’s population—owns almost half of the world’s wealth, while nearly half of the world’s population owns 2.7 percent of the wealth.
Marx foresaw all of this. And it’s not because he was a prophet — it’s because he understood the underlying motor of our economic system, and indeed of our history: a fundamental clash between haves and have-nots. That is why he aptly called it a history of class struggles.
More alive than ever, Marx’s genius resides in that he did not invent any of this —he simply translated our objective reality into words, in a way that no one had ever managed to.
In order to appreciate it, though, we must let go of all caricatures, stereotypes, and prejudices.
It’s high time we be open to what the bearded guy really had to say. No need to fear: out of all things he did, I am sure he didn’t bite.
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Photo courtesy of Clara Barros.