200th Anniversary of the Birth of Marx and a Revolution in Understanding
Historian Gerald Horne and host Paul Jay discuss the ongoing relevance of Marx’s Materialist Conception of History; to understand and fight ideas that defend injustice today, people must know the economic roots the give rise to, and perpetuate, such ideology
PAUL JAY: May 5 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. He was born in Trier, Germany in 1818. His collaborator and friend Fredrick Engels said Marx “was the first to give socialism, and thereby the whole labor movement, a scientific foundation.” Marx, by most serious accounts, was one of the great minds of human history; a political economist, a historian, a philosopher, but also a man of action.
He was an organizer and leader in the cause of socialism, social justice, and the modern working class. Inscribed on his headstone in Highgate Cemetery in London are his words: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Engels wrote that Marx “brought about a revolution in the whole conception of world history. The whole previous view of history was based on the conception that the ultimate causes of all historical changes are to be looked for in the changing ideas of human beings, and that of all historical changes, political changes are the most important and dominate the whole of history. But the question was not asked as to whence the ideas come into men’s minds and what the driving causes of the political changes are.”
At the grave site of Marx, after his death on March 17, 1883, Engels said: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, et cetera; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”
Millions of people around the world, including our next guest, find Marx as relevant today as he ever was. If so, what does the application of Marx’s conception of history look like when applied to the origins of the United States of America and our current world?
Joining us to discuss this is Gerald Horne. He joins us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Gerald holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores chair of History and African-American studies at the University of Houston. He’s the author of many books, most recently “Storming the Heavens: African-Americans and the Early Fight for the Right to Fly,” and “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: the Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean,” and also, of course, “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.” Thanks for joining us, Gerald.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.
PAUL JAY: So this concept that to understand state institutions, art, politics in today’s terms, I shouldn’t say in today’s terms, but to add to that we talk about the ideology of systemic racism, American chauvinism. You and I have talked about both of these things often. Marx’s concept of history is that to really understand and get the underlying motivating factors that drive these ideologies, and what he would call, I guess, superstructure, you really have to understand the economic foundations and how people, what level the mode of production, the way people produce, as hunting and gathering versus digitization and modern industry you get different human relationships. Talk a bit about the basic concept, and then how does that come up in your work, understanding American history?
GERALD HORNE: First of all, it’s no surprise that if you look at the liberation of Africa in the latter part of the 20th century you’ll find that many of the leaders of that epochal movement, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Samora Machel of Mozambique, even Nelson Mandela of South Africa, were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the doctrines of Karl Marx and the philosophy and ideology of socialism. I think that in order to understand that, it might be useful to look, for example, at England in the latter part of the 16th century, when Shakespeare was rising to prominence and penning his epochal play Othello. And just as that play represents and depicts a portrait of an African, Othello, who is treated with sensitivity and humanity, likewise in London you had Africans who were living there who were involved in all manner of activities, and were treated much better and much more humanely than they were treated a century later, in the 16 9 0s, for example.
Now, why that change? Well, that change takes place precisely because in that 100-year period England became deeply enmeshed in the African slave trade, became deeply enmeshed in the process of producing wealth by dint of the enslaved labor of Africans. And therefore the philosophy of Londoners and the English towards people of African descent likewise changed. And so in the late 16th century you had episodes of Africans beating and flaying Englishmen who might be defined as white, and not suffering as a result. That became virtually impossible by the late 17th century. That is to say, the 1690s. Similarly, if you look at the history of Europe generally, what you’ll find is that up until the rise of colonialism in the mid-17th century, religious conflict was the axis upon which society turned. I’m speaking of Protestant versus Catholics. But once Europeans became deeply enmeshed in colonialism and the slave trade, you saw that those tensions and conflicts and contradictions began to be curbed in favor of a mutual suppression and oppression of people of African descent in the first place, because their enslaved, their enslaved labor was necessary for propelling colonialism. And therein you begin to see the power and correctness, indeed, of the idea of Karl Marx, which is that modes of production and the garnering of wealth helps to shape and propel philosophies. The philosophy of white supremacy and racism not least.
Paul Jay: Well, then, take this conception of history, as Marx and Engels call it, and apply it to the United States. And to understand the extent of racism today, like, I’m recording this in Baltimore, a majority African-American city. Poverty numbers that are much, much higher than in non-black neighborhoods, non-black cities. The level of police repression, the level of the consequences of poverty like high murder rates and such. We’re now a long time after the founding of America, and this stuff perpetuates and keeps recreating itself, this ideology. So apply Marx’s conception to understanding this.
GERALD HORNE: Well, I think that the Marxist conception is that, number one, the racism that you see in Baltimore, and indeed throughout these United States of America, is quite profitable. Because of this racism, oftentimes you’re able to pay black workers substantially less than you pay workers who are defined as white, for example. Likewise, the racism is very corrosive to the idea of working class unity. That is to say, black and white workers united against their mutual oppressors, speaking of the boss, or the head of major transnational corporations. And that split in the working class is also very profitable to those at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid.
Therefore, as Karl Marx might put it in 2018, racism is quite functional, although it would be a mistake to see it as wholly a product of economic forces, although in the first instance it’s propelled by economic forces, forces. Because racism comes to take on a life of its own once it takes flight, even if one cannot be connected organically to its motive force, which is profit.
PAUL JAY: So how, to what extent does the racism that, that emerged as such a prominent piece of America, given how important it was to the economic development, slavery was to the economic development in America, the way things get, become part of the culture, part of the ethos, part of the national psyche, even, at such an origin, original origin level. And that starts to become part of a culture that keeps going in spite that slavery itself, at least outright slavery, came to an end.
GERALD HORNE: It becomes a machine that goes of itself. It’s very useful to compare London, the mother country in the mid-18th century, with its settler colonies in North America. And London, not least because the African-derived population was not a substantial as that in the settler colony of North America, oftentimes you found painters like William Hogarth, for example, who depicted black people in a very sensitive and humane fashion, not unlike the way William Shakespeare did at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 1600s. Whereas in North America, where the entire economy was turning upon the phenomenon of the labor of enslaved Africans, you found a casual brutalization of black people because, not least, this was profitable. And this profitable enterprise then infested the entire culture and society, helping to lead to a devaluation of black life on the one hand, and an enrichment of slave masters on the other, which in turn helped to create a society and a culture that was based upon white supremacy. And that has continued, I’m afraid, into the 21st century.
PAUL JAY: And when you look ahead at how to solve issues like systemic racism, abuse of police forces and such, it seems to me you have to tie these things together again. There’s only so much you can kind of reform in a police department, for example. You can, you know, there’s a lot of talk about training and changing the culture of the police departments, and such. That’s not to say it might not have some effect. But when the fundamental role of a police department is to defend the system of the relationship of who owns property, in other words, the more property you’ve got the more police police serve and protect you, as long as that’s the core relationship between a very few people owning the vast majority of wealth, and police are there to enforce laws that reinforce that distribution of wealth, there’s only so much you can do about reforming the racist heads of various policemen.
GERALD HORNE: I think that your question contains an answer that many find difficult to accept. What I mean is, is that even those who define themselves as radical oftentimes see the racism which we are discussing as virtually accidental. As being not an organic extension of the culture and society and history upon which it was based. Many, even those who define themselves as radical, find it difficult to accept that when you had the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, which led to the clipping the wings of the monarch, the rising merchant class did so, that is to say, clip the wings of the monarch, in order to gain a foothold in the lucrative African slave trade which the theretofore had been controlled by the monarch. Then in 1776 you had landowners and slave owners like George Washington who clipped the wings of the monarch once again by revolting against the idea that England was moving towards the abolition of slavery a la Somerset’s case in June 1772 in London, and thereby moved toward secession and independence, creating a society based upon white supremacy and slavery.
Then in 1836 you see slave owners in Texas revolt and secede from Mexico, not least because Mexico had moved towards the abolition of slavery in the preceding decade, the 1820s, under a leader of African descent. Speaking of Vicente Guerrero. And of course, because Texas independently could not withstand the pressure placed upon it by abolitionist Britain and revolutionary Haiti, Texas then entered the Union as a state of United States of America in 1845. And finally, in 1865 the so-called Confederate States of America seceded from the United States once again because they wanted to perpetuate slavery forevermore. But because of global pressure in the first place, they were defeated.
It’s very difficult even for radicals to come to the conclusion that this society and culture that was built, here in North America, was based not only on the enslavement on a mass basis of Africans, but on a genocidal dispossession of the indigenous population. And therefore it’s no surprise that racism in its most brutal and naked form continues to stalk the land in 2018.
PAUL JAY: So one of the ideas of Marx and Engels’ conception of history is that as production, productive forces, as they would call it, the way people produce, becomes more modernized, technological development takes place, in terms of capitalism you have the development of sciences that leads to modern mass production and industry, that the old relationships, the old ideas and institutions, actually become an obstruction to this new, new coming into being, these new productive forces coming into being. And we saw the way feudalism fights against the rise of capitalism, and in fact there’s revolutions to overthrow the feudalists in France, and to some extent even here. The, what are we seeing this now? How does it express itself now? Because Marx and Engels talked about having such socialized production now, with modern industry, with thousands of people work in factories. Now we have this social character of production has even become globalized at a scale I don’t think anybody could have imagined 200 years ago. Yet we still have the old forms of ownership.
We still have, in fact, it’s even more exaggerated. What is it, 1 percent of the world’s population controls, owns more than half the wealth, and so on. We’ve heard these statistics. These old relations of productions are still very much there.
GERALD HORNE: Well, first of all, you need to realize that a beard can continue to grow upon the face of a corpse, even though the body has died. That is to say that it’s not a simple nor easy matter to extinguish these manacles and handcuffs of the past that continue to bedevil us in the future.
To step back for a second, for example, let’s return to the question of religion, which we discussed a moment or two ago. With the rise of slavery and the slave trade, as noted, you began to see the decline of religion not only because of what I enunciated a moment or two ago, that those tensions and contradictions were curbed in favor of the mutual project of oppressing and suppressing the native populations of the Americas and the Africans. But also as the productive forces continued to grow and flourish, that led to more scientific exploration, which gives rise to what is now called the Enlightenment. And with the rise of science you begin to see a decline of religion. Now, that may come as a surprise to many of those in the United States of America. But I think it’s fair to say that religious observance, even the United States of America, is not today what it once was, say, a century ago. And that’s due in no small measure to the rise of the productive forces and the rise of scientific inquiry.
I think that that helps to give meaning to this point that you are speaking about in terms of what Marx was trying to say, in terms of the productive forces in society helping to propel philosophies, ideas, and even religion.
PAUL JAY: And I think you can see the sort of full blooming of this. One of Marx and Engels’ ideas is that socialism is born in the womb of capitalism. That you that you actually have the development and this modernization and massive scale of production as social character that takes on these massive monopolies that are extremely well-planned. They’re essentially, if you take the FedExes and the Amazons and the Wal-Marts, and some of these kinds of places, they’re extremely big planned economies. And you can see the kind of seeds of this sort of rational way to produce at its full bloom in these big rationalized monopolies, except still privately owned. So overall, the whole system is completely irrational.
GERALD HORNE: Well, it’s striking to note that what you’re speaking about is something that Marx and Engels also talk about in their epochal work, “The Communist Manifesto,” which comes out approximately 30 years after the birth of Karl Marx, which is characterized by that pithy phrase, “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” In other words, as you have the growth of these behemoths, the Amazons, for example, you also see an increasingly impoverished workforce, not only in North America, but in the other sites of exploitation where Amazon is sinking roots. Canada, for example. And therefore you see the growth of wealth that increasingly is appropriated by individuals like Jeff Bezos, whose fortune is nearing $100 billion , whereas you have workers who barely are surviving on salaries less than $30000 a year.
Obviously that kind of contradiction is not sustainable in the long run. Obviously what needs to happen are massive union organizing drives that unites workers across geographical and political borders. And that, I am sure, will happen sooner rather than later.
PAUL JAY: And these massive behemoths, as you say, to really have an effect of this planning for public good, need to be publicly owned. And that’s, that’s, I guess, a conversation we’re going to have in the next time we get together to talk about this, and we don’t have to wait another 200 years to celebrate the birth of Marx. Thanks very much for joining us, Gerald.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.