Lazarus and the rich man
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Not many are thinking of Karl Marx today. But 200 years after his birth, he is thinking about us. He is in our rooms at night when power is out. In our work place when the salary is not paid. In our sick bed when we cannot afford to fly to London for check-up or treatment.
While writers Kayode Komolafe and Isa Aremu glow over the revolutionary thinker, many are aching and in anguish. Yet faraway from our noses is the man who diagnosed our civilisation many years ago. Shall we show a little gratitude to acknowledge him? We should thank KK and Aremu for their historical sense.
When I think of Marx, I remember the parable of Lazarus and rich man, and it reminds me that Jesus, in spite of his divine halo, was the first true political revolutionary. He anticipated the rise of capitalism, the rebellion of labour, the chasm between rich and poor and the propensity of humans to rise in angst for the equality of man. The French revolution did not need a Das Capital or Communist Manifesto, neither did the American revolution also require the bearded German sage that called for the workers of the world to unite. In the same way, Jesus saw before Marx that humans would gloat over other beings when those who lack would chafe over the few who have.
It sounded like Marx when Jesus told his disciples, “a labourer is worthy of his pay.” The Roman overlords griped even when he proclaimed that “my kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…” but he was hanged even when he forswore a revolution of the flesh. The combustible genie was out of this god on earth and they had to react.
Marx was under the spell of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Even Martin Luther saw it as a story of the battle between rich and poor. Luther was a Christian revolutionary in his own right and the German rattled the Romish church before he also fell for his own materialistic lust: his sale of what was then known as indulgences. No perfect revolutionary. No Christian hero.
So also was Marx. And so shall we forgive him. Two hundred years after, no one country has a socialist state, to say nothing of a communist society. North Korea is an impostor. Cuba is withering its tenets by the day as the memory of the Castros diminish. Russia has returned to the Pre-Lenin obsession with oligarchs. Eastern Europe eyes America more than Das Capital. In Africa Augustino Neto is dead. Amilca Cabral. Lumumba. Nkrumah. All fiascos of belief.
Just like Jesus, Marx has shaken the earth: states and emperors have fallen, priests and scholars have been born, temples erected in his name, families broken apart, monuments built, fanatics and zealots sullied landscapes, wars and rumours of war bloodied our decades, cells and communes formed, movies made, many books inked, museums mushroomed. Luther asked God in the fiery moments of his personal travail: “Lord, let me not seem to have lived in vain.”
Why is it that Marx is still king without a kingdom? First, he was a poor judge of human nature. He saw a society without leaders and without a state. He erred. He also thought human fellow feeling could upend greed and usher in his credo: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” He forgot that wants prevail over needs, and that has been the motif of history. Lenin realised this early. So, he retreated after the Bolsheviks won, and he instituted the New Economic policy. It was, in a sense, a new nexus between the idealist and the capitalist. The first time was between Engels and Marx. Engels, in a class suicide, collaborated with Marx, and gave the world the manifesto. With Lenin, it was Marxism that humbled itself for capitalism.
When communism fell in late 19th century, it was because human nature could not abide oppression for too long. Even Shakespeare mocked the idea in his play, King Lear: “that distribution undo excess and each man have enough.” Man never has enough and distribution is often marked with bias and favouritism.
But Marx was also wrong in his Panglossian view of history. He thought Germany was likely to be the first communist society because of its advanced capitalism. But it was a feudal nation that first had it and it happen not naturally but through blood and fury. Nor was Cuba a mature capitalism. We can say his idea was too intoxicating to his revolutionary priests to await the fruition of prophecy.
But what was Marx’s virtue? He was a great diagnostician. He knew what was wrong. He knew the rich are making the world so bad that the sores of the Lazaruses at the gate are getting more ulcerous. And the worse it is the more dangers to the world. Many have become less interested in Jesus and less interested in Marx. Gyorgy Lukacs of the Frankfurt school who later renounced Marx said humans would make god of commodities. Who can tear away from cell phones today, or the car or electric consumption, et al? in this context, how could we have a society like the old Soviet Union? Even here, we worship human hair when we are not worshipping humans like music stars and Nollywood icons. Or bowing to the dictates of money-grubbing politicians. To mimic Medieval philosopher Peter Abelard, God has become man. And we love tinsels more than things.
But Marx has helped capitalism. That is his virtue. After the second world war, poverty drove most of Europe to love Marx. It led to the Marshall Plan that poured finance and succour to Europe and embalmed the society with the welfare state. We have this in the United States as well. So, those who mock “stomach infrastructure” should know that it did not start with Fayose but has been the saviour of the greed of the money class. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels tore through capitalism and wrote: “What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its gravediggers.” It’s the opposite. Capitalism uses Marx’s ideas to stay alive while no country is interested in being a communist society.
In the last capitalist crisis, Europe and the U.S. borrowed from Marx, nationalising firms like General Motors, paying the jobless and the sick while trying to repair the system for the rich. French economist Thomas Pickety traced this in his latest book, Capital in the 21st Century, and exposed the hypocrisies of capitalism and its staying power. Even in Nigeria, we have had tribes of socialists who still use Marx to diagnose our country but cannot go any further. After all, some of them are taking shelter in American universities and living the fantasy of enjoying bourgeois decadence while hypocritically attacking it. As Jesus himself said, the poor will always be with us. At one time Marxists thought the Lord lied. Even Marx believed in the parable of Lazarus and rich man. Jesus wants to abolish the world order. Christians are hoping. Marx wanted to save it for the masses, but Marxist are hoping against hope.