Every year, on May Day, a spectre comes to haunt us. The spectre of Karl Marx. He’s been coming since 1889, when the Second International first chose 1 May as the date for International Workers’ Day. And although we understand that he’s the brains behind the show, we don’t like him hanging around. His presence makes us uncomfortable. He reminds us of difficult things.
Over the years, we’ve done our best to exorcise him. Hitler buried him under the Day of National Work. Khrushchev engulfed him in elaborate parades. The Catholic church disguised him as Joseph, the patron saint of workers. Franco outlawed him altogether. Some countries appeased him with a public holiday; others, like Britain and Ireland, preferred to confuse him with the first Monday of the month. It’s time we faced up to the ghost: May Day is Marx Day, whether we like it or not.
What May Day does — and maybe it takes a consumer-friendly, barely celebrated non-holiday to do so — is remind us that Marx is still here, alive in our minds. Although communism as a political system is spent, Marx remains a powerful force in our language and in our thinking. To speak today about money, work, class or government is still to activate a language suffused with Marx. Our minds have been disciplined and trained by the system in which we live, and it was Marx who gave us the means to think about this system. It was he who helped us to define capitalism as capitalism, who gave us the tools to examine it and who made us conscious of our roles within it. It was Marx who made us “capitalists”.
Marx — and I’m not saying anything radical here — was a capitalist. He was less interested in imagining possible alternatives to capitalism than he was in examining and explaining capitalism itself. He wasn’t a visionary (or if he was, he was a bad one) but rather an analyst, a critic, a labeller. Throughout his life he remained remarkably vague about what he thought communism might look like, and instead concentrated on the system that he sensed was everywhere, in our thoughts and behaviour as well as in the material world.
The all-pervasiveness of capitalism, its inescapability, was Marx’s greatest observation. Marx understood that to step outside of capitalism was — for the human mind so totally conditioned by capitalism itself — impossible. We cannot choose whether or not to have a relationship with capitalism. (Even those living in the remaining “communist” regimes don’t have that luxury.) All that we can do — and it isn’t insignificant — is consider what kind of relationship we have with it. As capitalists, how do we think? How do we live? How do we treat other capitalists?
When I embarked on a year of researching Marx as background for my novel Mrs Engels , I had the predictable response. I judged Marx’s personal life against his theories, and I became enraged by his hypocrisy. Here was a man who lived the very kind of life — bourgeois, money-hungry, status-fixated — which in his writings he despised. Here was a man who said one thing (communism) and did another (capitalism).
However, by the time I’d completed the book, I’d found new peace with Marx. Actually, I’d grown to love him. In fact I realised that the person I was really angry with was myself.
Yes, it’s true that Marx thought that change would happen without having to change himself, but isn’t that precisely how I am? Don’t I publicly hate “the bankers” but privately long for reward and leisure? Don’t I criticise inequality and exploitation while quietly envying those with money and power? In fact, isn’t this hypocrisy at the centre of capitalism’s enduring power? To reject how some capitalists think and behave, while, at the same time, to make excuses for our own modes of capitalism — to choose for ourselves which parts of capitalism to accept and which to reject — isn’t this what it means to be a capitalist? Isn’t this why we so regularly feel so unhappy, dissatisfied, hard done by and guilty, and why we call on capitalism (what else?) to make us feel better?
Marx taught me that the first step to change, maybe even to revolution, is to notice. To notice how capitalism forges both the world around us and the world within us. To notice how our thoughts, actions and initiatives are the products of capitalism and how they are, in turn, capitalised by capitalism. By noticing these things we begin to see the ways in which we can become kinder and more compassionate, to our own capitalist selves and to the other capitalists in our lives. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015