Das Kapital

What Would Karl Marx Do?

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Theories formulated by Karl Marx, a German economist, philosopher, journalist and revolutionary, had a major impact on the world’s economies and on politics. Do they still apply today?

  • Facts


    • Mr. Marx’s 2,200-page magnum opus, “Capital,” is one of the best-selling books in the world and celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
    • Mr. Marx’ observations – such as religion “is the opium of the people” – are still often quoted.
    • “Stamokap” was what Russian Communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, called the close ties between government and big business.
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Small flag of ISIL, ISIS with grey storm clouds.
The Islamic State group use religion for their own purposes. Source: Mauritius

The Islamic State Group

One of Karl Marx’s best known sayings is this: Religion “is the opium of the people.” But would the adage help to understand modern phenomena like the group known as the Islamic State, the extremists currently causing havoc in Iraq and Syria and inspiring terrorist acts around the world?

In saying this, Mr. Marx meant that religion was part of a social power structure, a way for the owners of capital to stupefy workers by distracting them with belief systems and keeping them from recognizing reality.

That is certainly true for the Islamic State group. Leaders of the group appear to be more mercenary than pious. They adapt religious strictures to their own ends, justifying rape, slavery, bribery, murder, oppression, torture and a vast miscellany of other acts that would be considered criminal by the religion they pretend to represent.

Outside of the areas controlled by the Islamic State group, there are other arguments Mr. Marx presented that make sense in terms of religious extremism and religion-inspired terrorism. Mr. Marx argued that the “means of production” can add up to the creation of a collective identity – that is, we are all workers, or farmers, or coal miners. When the situation changes and the means of production are altered, those traditional social ties weaken, or break. And humans search for a new identity and sense of belonging.

Many analysts have suggested that the resurgence of populist politics is a sign of those broken ties. And it can also be seen in the young – mostly – men who join glorified gangs like the Islamic State or other extremist groups like the Klu Klux Klan, in search of new meaning and identity.

Rückrufaktion Volkswagen Abgasskandal
An engineer tests software on a VW in the aftermath of the emissions scandal. Source: DPA


When local newspaper, Taggespiegel, asked Herbert Behrens, the German politician tasked with leading the government’s inquiry into car maker Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, if the whole mess reminded him of “Stamokap,” his answer was loud, fast and clear. Yes, replied the Left Party member. Stamokap was what Russian Communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, called the close ties between government and big business. It’s all about the relationships between political and financial elites, that favor both groups.

One of Mr. Marx’s basic ideas is that sooner or later in capitalism, there is a consolidation in business sectors and many smaller firms will end up being controlled by a handful of larger ones. Mr. Lenin took this idea further, arguing that eventually those larger companies become so powerful that the state must serve them, rather than the other way around.

One of the questions investigators are asking now is when and who among the bureaucrats pinched their noses, when the first stench of the emissions scandal began to seep out. Nobody is saying this is a case of Stamokap quite yet. But there’s no doubt that Mr. Marx would have called it that.

Veganer Supermarkt
Shopping for vegetables as a weapon in the fight against capitalism? Source: DPA

Veggie Day

The German Green party recently suggested establishing a “Veggie Day” once a week, during which local canteens would be obliged to offer only vegetarian food. They hoped that Germans might even follow suit at home. The whole plan was meant to draw attention to, and possibly even ameliorate, the impact of meat production on the natural environment.

In all three chapters of “Capital” Mr. Marx discusses the ecological dimensions of capitalism although he was around too long ago to truly foresee the impact of business on the world’s environment.

If he was around today there is no doubt he would get involved in the debate over whether ongoing growth in markets is compatible with the need to protect finite natural resources. One imagines he might be skeptical about the idea of zero growth. Even if production costs and resource use was to decrease, it would never go to zero in a capitalist era. On the other hand, if your goal is ridding the world of capitalism, you could have environmental issues to aid you in that conquest.

Reducing demand is one major way to cause the capitalists some problems. Which is why, one imagines, Mr. Marx may well have been down at the office canteen with the Green party members, demonstrating for a new weapon against capitalism, Veggie Day.

Giant Guinness Book record placard on basic income vote
A poster reads: What would you do if your income were taken care of? in Geneva, in support of a basic unconditional income. Source: DPA

A Basic Income

The idea of a Basic Unconditional Income, or BUI, has been suggested as a cure for everything from the futuristic ills of automation to the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. A BUI is universal and individual – every citizen, no matter familial status, age, background, or occupation, whether seeking work or not, gets a certain amount of money from the government, monthly. No strings attached.

It’s a subject that could cause a bit of debate among Mr. Marx and his fans.

On one hand, a BUI could be seen as the natural consequence of a Communist ideology, freeing the workers from the necessity of work.

On the other hand, critics of the BUI from the left say that, if overall power structures and capital ownership don’t change first, then this form of payment won’t lead to more social justice. In fact, it could lead to less, as one group of society is tethered to comparatively lower income.

It is clear that there are two strains of thought on BUIs. One is liberal – that is, it assumes the BUI will make social welfare systems more efficient and even help business owners, in that they won’t be under any obligation to keep unprofitable jobs open. Those who become unemployed as the result of, say, more efficient automation, will be taken care of.

The other strain of thought on BUIs is Marxist and says it can only exist happily if the capitalist owners of the means of production are parted from their power. Only then can assets be fairly divided among the populace.


Christian Rickens is the head of Agenda, Handelsblatt’s magazine department. To contact the author: rickens@handelsblatt.com

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