Friday, May 10, 2013

Rethinking Marx

2013 is a year of anniversaries like one for Karl Marx who was born in the city of Trier on May 5, 1818. To honor this 195th non-decanal birthday a German artist placed 500 statues of the bearded thinker throughout his hometown of Trier. Artist Ottmar Hörl had said to Der Spiegel: I want to encourage passersby to rethink Marx reminding us that although the German thinker is associated with labor, capital, and an impressive fortress of facial hair, his true impact is arguably far more complex.

Ottmar Hörl and his Marx men (© Der Spiegel)
The miniature Marx men are all the same size and shape, yet all cast in different shades of red. Karl's historical importance no one will deny but were his ideas about class struggle not interred with the communist regimes in eastern Europe? Not quite, for some regimes around the globe hold on to communism where all goods are equally shared between the people although I would not call China a communist country. The problem with any regime claiming to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people is that by human nature some people are better off than others. When these persons are party functionaries like in the case of the Nazis or the GDR it is more than just annoying. The question is, are we in our democracies immune to inequalities that were recently caused by turbo capitalism?

In a TIME article: Marx's Revenge: How Class Struggle is Shaping the World I found Marx's statement: Accumulation of wealth on one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole. Without describing the content of the article and considering that we are still far away from workers of the world uniting and even further away from a dictatorship of the proletariat we still may ask the question how those who govern us can assure fairer economic opportunities. Fact is that in recent years the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening. In the 1970s the richest 10% of Americans earned 33% of the total income, by 2007 the percentage had increased to 49.7%, to nearly one half. In Germany where in the 1960s nobody considered such a development the situation seems worse for in 2004 the richest 10% earned 49% of the total that increased to 53% in 2008.

On April 24, I published a blog about our revolutionary hike from Günterstal to Freiburg's town hall and mentioned Freiburg's Social-Democrate MP Gernot Erler who on that occasion traced back the word combination social and democracy to 1849 and an article written by Ernst Elsenhans in Der Festungs-Bote No 10 (Newspaper of Fort Rastatt) published near the end of the Baden Revolution on July 18, 1849: Was ist und was will die soziale Demokratie? (What is social democracy and what is its aim?). I read the article and I was stunned by one paragraph:

Die Demokratie an sich wird uns weder Arbeit noch Brod geben, sie wird unsere fälligen Zinsen nicht zahlen, sie wird uns nicht von Sorgen und Leiden befreien, denn sie stößt bei Lösung ihrer Aufgabe, das Volk zur Herrschaft zu bringen, stets auf das Mißverhältnis des Eigenthums, des Besitzes. Diese Ungleichheit, dieses Mißverhältnis sucht nun der Sozialismus durch Herstellung der Gleichheit herzustellen ... Die Vertheilung der Güter soll nach dem Verlangen der Sozialisten von der Arbeit abhängig gemacht und dadurch die möglichste Gleichheit unter den Menschen erzielt, es soll jedem fleißigen, ordentlichen und geschickten Mann Gelegenheit verschafft werden, so viel Besitz zu erwerben, als zu einem vernünftigen Genuß des Lebens nötig ist ... (Democracy gives us neither jobs nor bread, it will not pay the interest on our debts, it will not liberate us from sorrows and sufferings for when trying to bring the people to power it always stumbles against the disproportion of property, of possession. Socialism tries to solve this disproportion by creating equality ... According to the socialists the distribution of goods shall depend on the work. Thereby the best possible equality among people shall be achieved. Each hardworking, decent, industrious man shall have the opportunity to acquire enough property that is necessary to assure him a reasonable enjoyment of life...)

Der Festungs-Bote No 10 of July 18, 1849
For Ernst Elsenhans socialism does not mean dispossession or leveling down but that every person should be able to earn a living while working. In addition remunerations shall be such that they are more than just sufficient to survive. The text is burning hot for in my country where luckily unemployment is low many a man or woman needs two jobs to earn a living or depends, while working, on additional government money supplements. The victims are young people, single parents and their children, and old people with insufficient old-age pensions. This is a social scandal in a country like Germany.

Like Ottmar Hörl I want to encourage you to rethink Marx and would like to add: How deep do you like the shade of red for your miniature Marx man?

Marx monument in Berlin (© Andreas Höfert)

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