Karl Marx: Evaluating the long shadow
Niyat is a beautiful Urdu word — it roughly translates to your mind’s intentions. But that delicate language has an even more beautiful word called, zehniyat; roughly, your heart and soul’s intentions. One of life’s most interesting questions is whether we should judge people by outcomes or their niyat or zehniyat. Surely we shouldn’t forgive a government spending thousands of crores on education without our children learning, whatever the niyat. And India’s crony capitalist bank robbery is ending because our bankruptcy laws and bank regulators are finally moving away from the airy-fairy concept of willful defaulter — a default is a default and must have the same and immediate consequences independent of whether it occurred because of zehniyat, an act of god, an act of government, or incompetence. I’d like to make the case that our economic leaders, frameworks and institutions need to be judged by outcomes not intentions. And despite Karl Marx’s noble zehniyat, we should judge him for the pain he caused to humanity, economics, and India rather than the nostalgia, romance, or amnesia being served up on his 200th birth anniversary.
Marx cast a long dark shadow on human lives. Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao and many other followers left their fingerprints directly or indirectly on the death of about 75 million people. Forty per cent of the world’s population that lived under Marxist regimes endured dictatorships, secret police, famines, exhaustion in labour camps, murder and much more. The violence of communism came from the abandonment of civil rights and the “marriage of absolute power with absolute ideology”. Stalin saying “a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic”, Pol Pot saying people with eyeglasses should be killed, and Deng Xiaoping’s son being paralysed for life after being thrown from a high building because his father was a capitalist roader all come from the same spiritual and intellectual fountain. As recently observed, Marx’s notion of happiness was “to fight” and his concept of misery was “to submit”.
The idealism of an economic regime built on equality of outcomes resonated with many countries coming out of monarchies and colonial rule, as it should have. But it also confused many of them, including India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech before the 1955 Avadi resolution was actually quite logical: “We cannot have a welfare state in India with all the socialism or even communism in the world unless our national income goes up. Socialism or Communism might help you divide your existing wealth but in India there is no existing wealth for you to divide; there is only poverty to divide. Our economic policy must, therefore, aim at plenty. Until very recently economic policies have often been based on scarcity. But the economics of scarcity has no meaning in the world of today.”
But the Avadi resolution led India down the path of economic stagnation, underinvestment in primary education, zero-sum view of competition, kneecapped private sector, and finally banks without governance, culture or consequences (sorry; the last one is better known as bank nationalisation). It was not god’s wish that it should take 71 years for 1.2 billion Indians to cross the GDP of 66 million Englishmen. This dragged-out journey to our prosperity is a consequence of the socialism — Marxism on a diet — that killed our national, firm, and individual productivity. And I’m baffled why the communists didn’t support the Independence struggle in the early 1940s, opposed Constitution writing in the late 1940s, and formally declared war on the Indian state in the 1950s.
The economic apocalypse that Marx predicted never came. Instead his book probably marks the turning point for global progress in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, literacy, and individual freedom. And people who believe that today’s globalisation and technology-driven world has much in common with Marx’s mid-19th century world are making the same mistake. Marx — like many gurus pontificating about the future before and after him — was overly negative because pessimists sound wiser than optimists. Wherever he is, I’d love to send him two great books — Progress by Johan Norberg and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker because I’m confident that reading them would nudge him to revise his unfinished book (most people don’t realise Volume 2 and 3 of Das Kapital were not completed by Marx and were edited by Engels after his death). I also think he would revisit his dim view of us; he viewed Hinduism as “a religion of absolute deprivation” and India as “a country that was a predestined prey of conquest with no history other than the history of successive intruders who founded their empires based on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society”.
Marx was a good writer whose genius was to recognise that we don’t live in an economy but a society. But life is the art of progress, not perfection and Marx was what Einstein would call a “terrible simplifier” who did not recognise the profound wisdom in Princeton Professor Avinash Dixit’s quip that “life is second best, at best”. More sadly, he did not believe in the ability of humans to heal themselves and their stories but believed in the power of forces above our pay grade. Two recurring themes of Urdu poetry — chirag (oil lamp) confronting hawa (wind) and kishti (boats) confronting toofan (storm) — represent the power of the human heart and mind against circumstances. Not only was Marx wrong about the power of the human heart and mind against circumstances — 4.5 billion people have been pulled out of poverty since he wrote his book in 1867 — but he was the spiritual and intellectual inspiration for much murder, violence and pain. Of course, it’s not Marx’s fault that millions died or lived in poverty longer than they needed to but surely teachers must get partial — or full — credit for what their students do. Outcomes matter more than zehniyat.
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