THE RISE OF THE PROLETARIAT: TIME TO REVISIT MARX?
From the Suez Canal to the state capital in Wisconsin, working people are taking to the streets en masse. Whether in Algeria, Bahrain or Green Bay, they are marching for their right to bargain, to have a voice in affairs of state, to matter as human beings "yearning to be free," to earn a livable wage and to be afforded certain human rights, among them the right to free speech as well as affordable health care.
Maybe -- and I say this knowing that I'll be called worse than a socialist -- it's time to revisit Karl Marx. Not the commie Karl Marx pilloried by McCarthy and his ilk, but the philosopher Marx who believed that "the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat [were] equally inevitable."
Marx's philosophical teachings, based on German philosophy, French political theory, and British economics, are complex but in a nutshell they go something like this: Reality is ever-changing so we must understand the historical forces that create change. Historical forces are not random; they follow something called the "dialectic": A thesis is proposed (Capitalism is the best economic system), an antithesis refutes it (Communism is fairer), and a synthesis is reached. (States should ensure certain safety nets within a capitalist system). What keeps change working is that some people invariably feel alienated so that successive governments are brought to an end by internal contradictions. But people seldom control this process. Rather, it is driven by its own internal laws. People are simply swept along. The process continues over time until contradictions are resolved and alienation vanishes. In a conflict-free situation, people begin to take control of their own destiny; they become the arbiters of change making self-fulfillment and freedom possible. Society becomes organic with individuals contributing to the whole.
Like all political and economic philosophies Marx's ideas make good copy. But in the real world they proved problematic. As Bryan Magee points out in his book The Story of Philosophy, "by the end of the 19th century"nowhere in the world was there a society where changes were happening in accordance with Marx's so-called "scientific laws of historical development.' This gave rise to ""revisionism'", which ultimately led to the collapse of Marxist Communism because it "invariably and without exception" led to bureaucratic dictatorships. In the end, communist economies failed leaving their followers impoverished and living with tyrannical governments.
Marx's ideas were riddled with problems as we know, but that doesn't mean we should "throw out the baby with the bathwater" as we try to understand what is taking place in Muslim countries and American states. The threat of fundamentalist or military dictatorships looms large on the horizons of countries like Egypt, Algeria and Syria as they grapple with how to bring about a new and uncharted future grounded in democratic ideals. But there are lessons for all of us -- and in particular for politicians and powerbrokers -- in the protests we're seeing, in the processes being put in place moving forward, and in the amazing people-power exhibited simultaneously in so many places despite economic, political and cultural differences.
At the end of the day what we are witnessing is a human movement. It's a collective cry for personhood, for dignity, for not being trampled upon by the moneyed classes or by megalomaniacs who view themselves as exempt from what a famous photojournalism essay in the 1960s called The Family of Man . To offer a somewhat gross comparison, it is all of us staring into the TV camera shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
"Philosophers," Marx said, "have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." That's what ordinary, extraordinary people all over the world are trying to do at this critical juncture in human history. "They have nothing to lose but their chains."