May 052014
 

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Today is the birthday (1818) of Karl Heinrich Marx, German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Marx’s work in economics laid the basis for the current understanding of labor and its relation to capital, and has influenced much of subsequent economic thought. He published numerous works during his lifetime, the most well known being The Communist Manifesto (with Friedrich Engels) and Das Kapital (Capital).

Marx was born into a wealthy middle-class family in Trier in the Prussian Rhineland and studied at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin, where he became interested in the philosophical ideas of the Young Hegelians. After his studies, he wrote for a radical newspaper in Cologne, and began to work out his theory of dialectical materialism. He moved to Paris in 1843, where he began writing for other radical newspapers and met Friedrich Engels, who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator. In 1849 he was exiled, and moved to London together with his wife and children where he continued writing and formulating his theories about social and economic activity. He also campaigned for socialism and became a significant figure in the International Workingmen’s Association.

Marx's daughters

Marx’s daughters

Marx’s theories about society, economics and politics hold, famously, that human history is the history of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed laboring class that provides the labor for production. He called capitalism the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” believing it to be run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit; and he predicted that, like previous socioeconomic systems, capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism. He argued that class antagonisms under capitalism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would eventuate in the working class’s conquest of political power in the form of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and eventually establish a classless society, socialism or communism, a society governed by a free association of producers. Along with believing in the inevitability of socialism and communism, Marx actively fought for their implementation, arguing that social theorists and underprivileged people alike should carry out organized revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change.

Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last 15 months of his life. It eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him in London on 14 March 1883. He died a stateless person; family and friends in London buried his body in Highgate Cemetery in London, on 17 March 1883. There were between nine and eleven mourners at his funeral.

Several of his closest friends spoke at his funeral, including Wilhelm Liebknecht and Friedrich Engels. Engels’ speech included the passage:

On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but forever.

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Marx is justifiably considered one of the most influential figures in human history. Revolutionary socialist governments espousing (their interpretation of) Marxist concepts, took power in a number of countries in the 20th century, leading to the formation of such socialist states as the Soviet Union in 1922 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Many labor unions and workers’ parties worldwide are influenced by Marxism, while various theoretical variants, such as Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and Dengism were developed from them. Marx is typically cited, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, as one of the three principal architects of modern social science.

Rather than attempting to summarize Marx’s theoretical work here, I am going to give a short personal appraisal based on my own reading and teaching of his work. For years I taught Marx both in general education classes for freshmen and in advanced social theory classes for sociology and anthropology majors. Here I am going to summarize a few of my major themes.

I will begin by saying that there is a wide gulf between Marx and Marxism, the latter coming in a kaleidoscope of colors. There is a wide gulf between all profound thinkers and their followers: Freud was not a Freudian, Darwin was not a Darwinian, and Jesus Christ was not a Christian. Marx himself is reported to have said that he was not a Marxist. The problem with all original thinkers is that their works are voluminous and complex, and their ideas can sprawl all over the place. Frequently earlier thoughts are revised, and sometimes even contradicted by later ones. What happens, though, is that disciples narrow down a dense and complicated body of work into bumper stickers. What is, in reality, a nuanced and detailed set of reflections becomes distilled into a set of “core principles” which become identified with the original thinkers as the totality of their philosophy, whereas such principles are always simplistic, and sometimes outright mistaken.

As a social scientist myself, I’m given to believe that this distillation into “core principles” is inevitable. Anthropologists have written a great deal about the process of moving from the first generation (the original thinkers) to the second generation (the followers). The first generation is full of free flowing ideas that tumble out every which way; the second generation has to make sense of it all and put the ideas into practice. Quite commonly second generation thinkers are more rigid than the first generation, and do not always understand the message of the first generation. If you want to understand Marx, read what he wrote and not what Marxists have written.

The most damaging delusion concerning what Marx wrote is to equate his philosophy with the governing principles of communist states that emerged in the 20th century, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Marx most emphatically did NOT advocate totalitarian, repressive regimes as a replacement of capitalism. This is a hideous distortion of what he wanted from social revolution. When he talked about “the dictatorship of the proletariat” he was not suggesting that one form of tyranny, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, should be replaced by another. He was suggesting just the opposite: his vision of communism was a state of affairs in which workers were free and happy. Because the word “communism” has taken on such a perverted meaning since the 20th century it might be better to find a different word to denote Marx’s vision of a new order.

My second summary point is that because most people do not read Marx, but think of him in terms of bumper stickers, they not only misunderstand what he wrote, but as often as not agree with him even though they think they don’t. When you feel as if you are oppressed by your job and that all you are doing is enriching others, you are thinking like Marx. When you decry the crass materialism of Christmas, you are thinking like Marx. When you lack a sense of self esteem because your worth as a person is dependent on your place in a system you do not control, you are thinking like Marx. What is more, the economic theories of the left AND the right use Marx in one way or another. A colleague of mine specializing in political economy once said “I don’t know of a Wall Street banker who is not a Marxist,” meaning not that Wall Street bankers believe in the redistribution of wealth, but that they use Marx’s principles – unknowingly – in their economic dealings.

I am not a Marxist (or any other kind of “-ist”), but there are many ideas he proposed or espoused that I am sympathetic to. Perhaps chief of these is his notion of “value,” more specifically the difference between “use value” and “exchange value.” The use value of an object is its value to YOU. A chef’s knife is a critical tool in the daily work of a professional chef; but may be an object that lies unused in the drawer of an indifferent home cook. Their use value is quite different to the two owners, but the two knives cost the same amount at the store. Their cost is their exchange value – or market value. Or take a different kind of example. You may own a piece of costume jewelry that means worlds to you because it was owned by your great grandmother, so its use value (emotional use) is extremely high, yet it is virtually worthless in the market place. A major social problem arises, according to Marx, when we confuse use value and exchange value – or, rather, when we believe that the ONLY value of an object is its exchange value. The deepest tragedy of all is when we come to believe that our personal worth is determined by what we can sell our labor for in the marketplace, and that what we can afford to buy is the measure of our worth as human beings.

I’m not in a position to teach you much about Marx in a few paragraphs. All I can hope to do is to motivate you to want to know more about his works. If you read Marx with a fresh eye, and not in the shadow of history, you will undoubtedly find words that inspire and engage you, words that make you think more deeply about the world in which we live, and about yourself.

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My researches revealed that Marx was partial to fish, but his favorite dish was pickled beets with hollandaise sauce. You have to be a little skeptical of such pronouncements, but I’ll work with what I have and suggest a dish of poached salmon with pickled beets in hollandaise as a side dish. My photo shows pejerrey (Argentine smelts) as the fish because salmon is rather pricey nowadays in Argentina. I gave a recipe for hollandaise two days ago (3 May 2014), so I do not need to repeat it, and poaching salmon (or other fish) should not raise any issues. So here is the basic method for pickling beets if you don’t want to buy them. If you happen to be close to a good kosher deli, I’d get them there.

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Pickled Beets

Ingredients:

1 large red onion, peeled, halved, and sliced
1 cup tarragon wine vinegar
1 ½ tsps kosher salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup water

For roasted beets:

6 medium beets
2 large shallots, peeled
2 sprigs rosemary
2 teaspoons olive oil

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Scrub the beets well and cut the tops off. Mix them with the rest of the roasting ingredients so that they are lightly coated with oil, and then place them in a tightly sealed foil pack and roast for 40 minutes in the oven.

Let the beets cool slightly and peel them. The skins should just rub off. Then slice them.

Layer the beets and sliced onion alternately in mason jars.

Bring the vinegar, salt, sugar, and water to a boil. Pour the mixture over the beets and seal the jars.

They can be eaten after 3 days, but 7 is better; and they will keep for up to 1 month.