23 May 2019
Karl Marx strongly criticized capitalism in his works and incited hatred against the bourgeoisie. Photo:
Karl Marx strongly criticized capitalism in his works and incited hatred against the bourgeoisie. Photo:

What was the real Karl Marx like?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

While the academic circles in the mainland have remained rather indifferent to this special occasion, Chinese officialdom and propaganda organs of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have been firing on all cylinders in recent months to commemorate Marx and remind people of his “great contribution”.

In particular, the recent CPC Politburo meeting has unanimously reaffirmed the status of Marxist theories as the party’s “guiding principles”, and emphasized the demi-god status of Karl Marx.

However, contrary to the CPC’s depiction, the truth is, Marx was anything but a saint. On one hand, he strongly criticized capitalism in his works and incited hatred against the bourgeoisie. On the other, he was financially dependent on his wife, who was the daughter of an “evil” capitalist entrepreneur by his own definition, as well as his good friend Friedrich Engels, who was the son of a textile factory owner.

Apart from the double standard he held, Marx was also a spendthrift and a womanizer who loved drinking expensive red wine and chain-smoking cigars, and who also had an affair with his own housemaid. In fact, during the last 10 years of his life when he was writing Das Kapital, he couldn’t even pay for his bread and was struggling with terminal Syphilis.

Karl Marx didn’t live to see the publication of the second and third volumes of Das Kapital, which were arranged and published by Engels in 1885 and 1894, respectively, using the preparatory and unfinished manuscripts he had left behind.

After Engels died in 1895, his friend and German social democratic activist Karl Kautsky gathered the remaining manuscripts of Marx, based on which he went on to publish the fourth volume of Das Kapital between 1905 and 1910.

Intriguingly though, despite the fact that Das Kapital has been hailed by the CPC as the “Red Bible” for decades, only a handful of its leaders and high-ranking officials have actually read through all four volumes of the book.

Even paramount leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun rarely cited the theories of Das Kapital in their written works and chronicles, which calls into question whether they were really as familiar with Marxist theories as they claimed.

In a nutshell, the contents of Das Kapital can be categorized into four major segments: 1. the class struggle and the proletariat dictatorship; 2. violent revolution; 3. the general picture of a communist society; and 4. the theory of “surplus value”.

The idea of “surplus value”, or “Mehrwert”, is at the core of Karl Marx’s anti-capitalist theories. Simply put, “surplus value” refers to the additional value of labor created by workers over and above the costs of hiring them, and that extra value is then appropriated by their employers as “profits” when the finished products which they made are sold to the market.

According to Marx, “surplus value” is a form of labor exploitation, because workers cannot share that extra value and the profits its generates since they have no control over the means of production (e.g. the machinery in the factories owned by their employers). As a result, all the extra value and profits go to the pockets of the entrepreneurs, who usually pay their workers less than the value which their labor has added to the finished products, often just enough to maintain them at a subsistence level.

For example, if a factory worker is paid to work eight hours a day, and five hours of work is enough to cover his wages, then the remaining 3 hours of work would be considered “surplus labor”, and the extra value it produces would be “surplus value”.

Marx’s arguments over “surplus value” might appear logical and convincing at first glance. However, there is actually a fundamental flaw in his theories: while he lambasted entrepreneurs for exploiting workers, he failed to take into account their contribution in terms of capital, management and technology input.

If capitalists are not rewarded in terms of “surplus value”, where will job opportunities come from? And there will be no industrialization and economic advance whatsoever.

In the first volume of Das Kapital, Marx says “the days of private capitalism are numbered”. Ironically, history has proven him wrong, as it was exactly the opposite that happened in China in the 1980s when capitalism, along with its modern production and management methods were introduced to pull China out of its economic difficulties and widespread poverty.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep 21

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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