Editor’s Note: Since the financial crash of 2008, there has been a revival of interest in the writings of Karl Marx, especially among disenchanted millennials faced with bleak economic prospects and unburdened by memories of the Cold War. Marx died in 1883. So, what would he have to say to his readers if he were able to come back to life today? In the imaginary letter below, Nicholas Powers takes a crack at giving voice to a 19th century prophet trying to make sense of a 21st century world radically different from the one he knew but still ruled by the capitalist system he so painstakingly analyzed.
I am writing you because it troubles me to have a dialogue with you in my head without you being able to answer. The world is teeming with activity. Again you are in the streets, shouting with a glowing hatred for the landlords, capitalists and officials.
What else can one write about at the present moment but of the great schism that has cracked open the 21st century? Islands of wealth rise even as whole peoples slide into abysmal poverty. Against their death the multitudes fight in blind sporadic outbursts — here in the Middle East, there in America, here in Spain and there again in India.
Like so many volcanoes, the people erupt and the transnational bourgeoisie, as if a Goliath, kick them down like anthills. How could it be otherwise? Imperialist war has left the nations (often to the jingoist cheer of the stupid) with fully developed forces that today’s as-yet immature social movements dash against in futility.
Today many are hopeless. In my own time, I also felt hollow. When my son Edgar died, he was only eight. I walked the cobblestone streets of Brussels, weeping and tugging my beard as he once did. Did I kill him by choosing a life of slums and revolutionary theory? At his funeral the family consoled me as I grieved, “You cannot give me back my boy!”
In the years that followed, child after child died. My wife Jenny’s face became tight with pain. To escape the guilt of a silent house, I walked the city and saw the same death stalking my neighbors. Their children died too. Clad in the black of mourning, they paced to and fro and their shadows shuddered along the walls. Above us all, I saw the grinding mill of labor, its invisible wheels churning the city, mulching our bodies and spirits into capital.
We suffer and die, in a seemingly endless cycle. But what is the meaning of it? Are we but fodder for factories? Are the armies of workers, who march from hearthstone to industry, ever to remain nameless in history? Gazing upon the buildings, I saw in the tall spires, in the store filled with wares and in each stone of the street the human hands that built this city. Each object was a testament to the powers of the wretched worker who returned home at night with an empty stomach.
Labor is the beating heart of the world. Anything I ever wrote came from this eternal truth. My hope, dear comrades, was for the masses to know this and see in the ruling class and its parade of power their own stolen strength. My dream was to spur them to ruthlessly seize control of the means of production — yes, by force and by blood — until we climbed the capitols of the world and made them ring with workers’ voices. Upon that summit, we could lay to rest the spirits of those we watched die from hunger and poverty and grief. Maybe then, arm-in-arm with my comrades, I could feel Edgar tug my beard again and know that he forgave me.
Long after I wrote my last word, I am being read again. Leave it to the rich to create my audience for me! Of course, inevitably the capitalist cycle of crisis has crashed. The contradictions of bourgeois production — exploitation of the labor of workers who cannot afford the gross flood of commodities — were held at bay in the advanced nations by credit, until teetering like a house of cards, it fell.
Rising from the rubble is the anger of the workers and the young who can find no work. Close behind it will be the terror of the global South. For the next contradiction of bourgeois production — the infinite desire for capital accumulation on a finite planet — has made industry the enemy of the earth. Ice caps melt. Floods wash cities away. Terrified millions, ragged and desperate, are on the move.
The historical role of the working class is now to save our species from capitalism. Mind you, I am not blowing the heavenly horns of the End Times. No prophecy of final revolution is true, including my own. The social being of man may determine his consciousness, but it does not foreclose it — there is something in man that is deeper than consciousness. And that is being itself. Even a communist mode of production will never allow us to seize control of our own dark depths.
We may be beyond salvation, but must the earth itself be condemned? The bourgeoisie are blinded by privilege; they imagine they can escape the wrath of hurricanes and drought. But they will destroy our planet, the vulnerable poor and then, eventually, themselves. We revolutionaries must remove them, smash their society and replace it with a free association, between man and man as well as man and nature.
Let me tell you now what I could not know then. Paradise was never at the end of a long historical arc of development. It was here all along. We always already had enough. It was the ideology of hierarchy and scarcity that trapped us. And know this — the true product of an economy is not commodities but the consciousness of those that make them.
So as you ply the fingers of the bourgeois off the earth, breathe and sing. I see from a great distance the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one. Every metamorphosis is also a swan song. This is your time.