Marxists in India have been celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of their hero Karl Marx with odes to the Leftists ideologue. They have every right to do so; after all, Marx was a political thinker and writer of great creativity and originality whose thoughts shaped the political discourse in many parts of the world. But it is also true that Marxism failed to take off in most countries, and in the few nations where it did gain power it reduced the system to one of authoritarianism and even dictatorship.
Ironically, Marxists failed in countries which were, according to Marxist belief, fertile grounds for their success. Marx had said that the two essential elements needed for his kind of socio-political revolution were the capitalist class and the working class. The West, especially England, to which the ideologue devoted much of his time, had a strong capitalist base as a result of the industrial drive and a large working population which had innumerable grievances — many genuine and others less so. And yet the proletariat, despite the best efforts of Marxist comrades of the time, refused to take the bait. Marx and his friends offered various explanations for the failure — the media had been bought by the capitalists and it, therefore, refused to mould public opinion in favour of Marxist egalitarianism; the workers had been bought off too, through threats and inducements, etc — but the fact is that their philosophy of revolution, even violent if needed, found no takers by and large.
The Marxist idea later proved more successful in countries that were not industrialised, nor did they as a consequence have an industrial proletariat. China and Russia are two such examples. But even in those countries, Marxism was turned on its head. Marx had said that revolution must begin from the bottom of the pyramid and should be controlled from there. But in Soviet Russia and China, the ‘revolution’ was initiated and controlled from the top — a single authoritarian leader who appropriated Marxist ideals to promote his rule. In both these places, Marxism got mixed with dictatorial socialism. The collapse of Soviet Russia was in many ways a rejection of Marxist rule.
China remains the only living major example of Leftist success, but even here the core concepts of Marxism have long made way to capitalism — albeit state-controlled. The Indian example is especially interesting. Here, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s romantic idealism, communists crafted a few spheres of influence and managed to remain relevant. The 1917 October Revolution in Soviet Russia came as a boost to their efforts. However, in the decades after independence, the Marxists have lost base, both because their ideas have failed to click with the new generation of voters and also because often they have come across as carbon copies of centrist parties such as the Congress. The Marxist dream is all but dead in India — and this is to the country’s benefit.