Karl Marx at 200
To honor Karl Marx's birthday, artist Ottmar Hörl set 500 of these sculptures up throughout the philosopher's hometown of Trier, a city in western Germany. The different shades are reportedly meant to suggest that Marxism can be interpreted in more than one way. | DPA via AP

Marx is back. For his 200th birthday, the socialist revolutionary’s bearded image is popping up everywhere. Books, seminars, and conferences devoted to his legacy and enduring relevance abound across the capitalist world—from Brooklyn to London to Berlin—as well as in the countries which still declare their loyalty to his communist ideals.

His hometown of Trier in Germany is due to unveil an 18-foot statue of the author of The Communist Manifesto in the city center this weekend. A gift from China, it’s the latest addition to Trier’s public collection of Marxist memorabilia. New crosswalk signals installed in March direct pedestrians to the statue; they can cross the street to view it only after a little Marx flashes green. A local winery, meanwhile, is pushing a bit of commodity fetishism with a Moselle made special for the occasion named “Das Kapital.”

But aside from Trier’s kitschy Marxist birthday bash, there are also the more serious appreciations being made of Marx as he enters his third century. In Beijing Friday, President Xi Jinping stood before a giant portrait of Marx and, surrounded by red banners, declared him “the greatest thinker in the history of mankind.”

Just last week, Xi was telling the Politburo to brush up on their ideology by re-reading the Manifesto, which is celebrating its 170th this year. With documentaries on Marx’s writings due to air all weekend on China Central Television and universities enrolling students in courses devoted to “scientific socialism,” the Marx revival initiated by Xi a few years back appears to be proceeding apace in the world’s biggest country.

Karl Marx signals pedestrians when its safe to cross the street on the new lights installed in Trier. | Birgit Reichert / DPA via AP

Thirty years ago, especially among the mainstream press, politicians, and academics, it was fashionable to shuffle Marx off the world stage. Many of his erstwhile adherents in several Communist Parties—even in the Soviet Union!—were calling it quits. It was the “end of history,” after all, and capitalism had won. Socialism was dead, never to return.

Fast forward to the present and we find ourselves still dealing with the aftermath of capitalism’s deepest and most extended crisis since the Great Depression. A whole generation in the West is growing up in a time defined by low wages, bad jobs, crushing debt, and of course the never-ending scourges of racism and sexism. In much of the developing world, war, poverty, and debilitating inequality remain the hallmarks of life.

Except for the explosion of wealth funneled to those at the top these last couple of decades, it could be argued that capitalism hasn’t really given most people much to get excited about lately. No “golden age” of 1960s-style prosperity, no promise that daughters and sons will live better than their parents. In short, the glow is off the capitalist utopia that supposedly dawned with the end of the Cold War.

Is it any wonder, then, that Marx is making a comeback? Should we really find it surprising that so many are again becoming interested in the ideas of capitalism’s greatest critic?

Even in the pages of the New York Times this week, in an article headlined “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You were right!”, the timelessness of Marx’s analysis was given its due:

“Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the ‘eternal truths’ of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.”

Granted this was an op-ed by philosophy professor Jason Barker, known for his scholarly eclecticism, but to see Marx lauded on his birthday in the Times is still a sign of, well, the times.

The current upsurge around issues of race and gender that Barker mentioned, the revulsion at economic inequality expressed by the millions who flocked to Bernie Sanders in 2016, the rebellion of teachers in red states across America…the list of examples could go on—these are all, in their own way, bits of confirmation of Marx’s science of society.

Political consciousness is on the rise among huge numbers of people. Their own experiences are pushing them into struggle alongside others, and they are gaining a greater awareness that the obstacles they come up against in life are not just individual challenges or hurdles. They are components of much bigger systems of oppression and exploitation rooted in class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, and more.

As Marx wrote in The Critique of Political Economy in 1859, “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general.” That same mode of production—capitalism—that keeps people ideologically blinded to the reasons behind their lot in life eventually, however, reveals its functioning to people. They “become conscious,” in Marx’s words, of the contradictions in material life.

They see an economic system that is capable, through social production and cooperation, of providing a good material life for all people, but which never will because it is owned and controlled by a tiny minority. To simplify, the high position of those who don’t work depends entirely on the labor of those who do.

Participants stand as the socialist anthem, “The Internationale,” is played at an event to mark the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. | Ng Han Guan / AP

That is the Marx—and the Marxism—that is becoming relevant once again. The material conditions of life are prompting people to question the system, to ask why things are the way they are in our society. But knowing why things are the way they are and doing something about it are two different things. For Marx, it wasn’t just enough to analyze capitalism—it had to be changed. People had to move from awareness and single-issue protest to coordinated and planned action aimed at changing the system.

That’s the point where theory meets organization, where ideology and collective action intersect. For Marx, that intersection was the working class political party—a group that looked after not only “the immediate aims” of workers, or the movement of the present, but also prepared “the movement of the future.”

Marxism was never supposed to be about drawing up plans for refashioning society detached from material reality, simply preaching about the need to improve workers’ lives, or hatching conspiracies, despite what Marx’s detractors have long claimed.

Today, the political organizations which remain devoted, however sincerely, to that Marxist goal of linking theory and action are not what they once were. The monolithic “World Communist Movement” of the 20th century is no more. A few parties remain in power, in countries like China, Cuba, and Vietnam. Some others participate in governments in capitalist states, such as in South Africa. Most, however, are oppositional forces, scattered and disorganized to varying degrees.

But if the material conditions of life continue to revive interest in Marx’s ideas about capitalism, then surely his notions about a socialist future and his concept of the working class political party needed to get there will also have a second coming.

That would be a birthday gift I’m sure he would appreciate.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.