Last year I went on my holidays to the French wine region of Alsace although I did very little drinking as most of the time I was driving. As a quid pro quo I was able to take the opportunity to drive over and visit Trier in Germany.
Trier is a contestant for Germany’s oldest city, a UNESCO world heritage site and the location of notable Roman buildings. Of course for a Marxist it is also distinguished as the birthplace of Karl Marx, which has been turned into a museum, and it was for this reason that I ventured out of France.
If I thought the French didn’t pay much attention to speed limits it appeared to me that the Germans didn’t have one. On two rather short journeys to and from Trier to the French border I came across three traffic accidents including one rather nasty one in which an occupant was being cut out of a car.
Having arrived safely at our very functional hotel, which consistent of separate concrete boxes called rooms and a bigger box that doubled as reception and breakfast area, we took a dander round the town where I explained that it was unusual to have anything to do with Marxism as a local tourist attraction. It was pointed out to me that the most memorable aspect of this was the local tourist bus painted with Karl Marx’s mug.
The next morning we had breakfast in reception, in which the juice and Rice Crispies were almost in the street. All very lean I was told, proving to me that I am not the only one who doesn’t really switch off when on holiday. The big TV behind the desk was showing the news on some local channel. I was too far away to hear but this wasn’t a problem as I don’t speak German anyway. And in any case my eagerness to see who had won the Scottish referendum was being addressed by an interview with a guy who had a very bad Mel Gibson Braveheart haircut, and a Saltire painted across his face. He had the demeanour of Mel at the end of the film when he was on the rack. I guessed who had won.
We then took in the museum and the audio tour that outlined Marx’s family background and history, the story of his political involvement and an AB of his ideas. It was competently done, without being ruined by the reformist bias I had feared from it being run by the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and its Friedrich Ebert Foundation, named after a real reactionary bastard, whose historical role might well make those who think social democracy has turned right under neoliberalism rethink just how left it was beforehand.
It was a bit bemusing to find out that the young Karl had hardly got out of his nappies before he had moved house along with his family, but you hardly treat such a visit as a religious pilgrimage, in which you touch the foot of the statue of the blessed man or feel his earthly presence.
Like all museums it had a shop but inexplicably nothing for lovers of Flat Whites or three-shot Cappuccinos. Being a sucker for a certain type of tat I attempted to buy a bust of the man himself ( you’ve already got one); a Karl Marx mug (it’s too tacky); some red wine (I’m sure it’s just not nice) and a fridge magnet (you don’t even know what it says because you can’t speak German). However I did get away with the museum exhibition booklet and a bar of ‘Karl Marx Fine Chocolate’, which I haven’t yet opened just for badness.
What didn’t fully strike me as very poor until much later was the paucity of Marx’s writings that were for sale, but then the SPD believes that his writings really are only a museum piece, and the shop is for taking things away. The best the exhibition booklet could come up with, in its final words on ‘Marx in the Twenty-First Century’, was that “engagement with the methods of Karl Marx and the questions he posed will continue to be meaningful”. You don’t say.
The final chapter, on ‘Embracing of the Ideas of Karl Marx Worldwide’, cited the following, among others, as coming under his influence or claiming to express his ideas – Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, the ANC, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and liberation theology. When we add the various ‘Marxist’ schools including the Frankfurt school, structuralism, post-Marxism and Analytical Marxism etc. and the experience of the various state regimes that have laid claim to Marx as their inspiration – from the Soviet Union to Albania – we can see the obstacles to engaging with Marx in a way that is not only meaningful but faithful to his writings.
So why bother? A look at the activities of today’s organisations claiming to be Marxist shows that the political programmes put forward hardly correspond to his oft-stated views. From capitalist state ownership as the road to, and destination of socialism, to strikes for higher wages as ‘going to the heart of the system’, if you hang around the Left long enough you will hear every competing conception of socialism that Marx fought against being presented as the authentic expression of his views.
Quotes from Marx are regularly thrown about but rarely after actually reading the original. In Ireland our latest Marxist TD is shown on YouTube commencing an educational meeting with a quote from Marx’s Capital, which he admits he hasn’t read but which the chair of the meeting assures him ‘nobody has’.
By reading the original the original meaning might actually be understood. A very simple reason why to bother.
But the answer is not simply to ‘go back to Marx’ as a way of overcoming the obstacles created by the distortion of his teachings by many who have claimed to be his followers.
This is not least because they have sometimes genuinely sought to apply his teachings, albeit often in a one-sided and partial way, providing one-sided and partial truths. The direct words of Marxism expressed by Marx have been supplemented by the history of the development of his ideas and of the working class movement and it would be in complete conflict with his method to seek to go beyond the failures of both by simply claiming they are ‘wrong’, isolating ourselves from them and ignoring the lessons to be learned.
The history of Marxism and of the working class movement is now the ground on which both must be renewed. Such renewal requires not just engagement with the direct views of Marx but also with the fragmentation and degeneration of Marxism and the labour movement. The experience of both cannot be ignored or wished away and the alienation arising from them must be overcome because this alienation is now part of the reality we must seek to change, just as Marx sought to change the reality that he faced, including the various schools of socialism that he considered must be overcome and banished during his time.