Like many folks these days, I’ve become dependent on modern gadgetry to get through the day. I don’t leave the house without my smartphone. I don’t have much use for stamps anymore; most of my correspondence and bill-paying occurs online. I haven’t owned a camera that requires film in almost a decade. It seems that almost every aspect of my life has been replaced by a digital version, and leading this high-tech revolution is a thing called Facebook, a website I spend entirely too much time on.
Facebook has really changed the way people do things. When we throw a party, we don’t send each other invitations in the mail; we create an event on the web and invite everyone on our friends list. In fact, I’m constantly bombarded by events, including ones that are thousands of miles away, which I have no hope of ever attending even if I wanted to. But just when I thought I’d seen it all, I got one last week that was good for a chuckle.
I’d been invited to Karl Marx’s birthday party!
May 5 marks the 197th birthday of the esteemed Karl Marx, and some creative soul took the time to create a Facebook event to commemorate the occasion. I’m sure that good old Karl never imagined that people sitting in front of computer screens would be sending out invitations to his birthday celebration, the message crisscrossing the globe to friends near and far at the speed of light.
Of course, Marx was no stranger to the role of technology in society. It was he who realized that it was technology that separated humanity from the other species of our planet. Technology allowed us to rise above subsistence living, create a surplus value and a division of labor, and do more interesting things with our lives than forage for the bare necessities. He also realized that as technology became more sophisticated and the group of people who could get their hands on the latest productive property became fewer and fewer, it would push ever more people into the proletariat, the class of workers who had nothing to bring to the marketplace except labor which could easily be extorted from them. Marx saw that it was technology that carried humanity from one epoch to the next.
When you really think about it, perhaps a high-tech invitation to Marx’s birthday party isn’t so bizarre after all. But the question at the heart of the issue is whether a man born almost 200 years ago has a role to play in the era of Facebook. Have his ideas gone the way of the rotary phone?
There have been plenty of folks who have argued that the works of Marx are flawed. They say that his analyses were detached from the reality of his day and that most of his predictions didn’t come true within his lifetime. Many have pointed to the fall of Soviet socialism as an example of what they perceive as Marx’s folly. It would seem to them that there’s no room for Karl Marx in the 21st century.
I have a different opinion, however. To me, the ideas of Marxism are like a vintage wine. In many ways they’re just now coming into full bloom. If there is any kernel of truth to the claims of the naysayers, it’s because Marx, and many of those who were inspired by him during the 20th century, were ahead of their time. When we look at the defining economic phenomena of the past 40 years – globalization, corporate mega-mergers, the boom and bust economy, the decline of post-industrial America, the “proletarianizing” of the middle class in nearly every industry – we can finally see the wisdom of Marx confirmed in material reality over a century later.
Are the ideas of a 19th-century bearded guy relevant in the age of Facebook? I have no doubt in my mind that his works are more important now than ever. I just wonder what kind of embarrassing photos he would be tagged in if he had been alive to attend the party.
This article, updated this year, was originally posted in People’s World on May 5, 2010.
Photo: Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetery, London. CC BY 2.0