When Waqar A Khan, Founder, Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies, requested yours truly to take a look at a book written by a nonagenarian academic from the UK named Eric Rahim, born in 1928 in what later on became Pakistan, on Karl Marx, I was, to say the least, intrigued. I readily agreed to go through the slim volume of less than two hundred pages. Rahim was a journalist who worked for two quality newspapers of Pakistan, first Dawn, and then, The Pakistan Times, before embarking for doctoral studies in Economics in the UK, and landing a teaching job at Scotland's Strathclyde University.
The title, A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx's Worldview, says it all about its content, though probably not as comprehensively as one might expect in the exploration of a brilliant mind whose thoughts continue to have an influence on human minds and plans of action to this day. But what Rahim has provided is enlightening enough, if at times rather heavy going, like for yours truly, who are less than adequately informed on the vast subject. Modern political economy is usually traced back to Adam Smith who is generally recognized as the first philosopher of capitalism. The counterpoint to his philosophy was advanced by Karl Marx, who, in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, argued in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 that unplanned capitalism must inevitably collapse and should be replaced by planned production. His proposition is also known as dialectical materialism, the idea that all growth, social change, and economic development are the outcome of opposing forces competing for economic survival.
It was this thought, along with a few related ones, that Rahim characterizes as promethean and, he explains, "This book is an exposition of Karl Marx's worldview, generally referred to as the materialist conception of history or historical materialism." After acknowledging that the concept of historical materialism is a combined outcome from Marx and Engels, the author proceeds to inform us that his focus in this book is exclusively on Marx. And so we are informed that Marx's worldview has already developed considerably before he had turned thirty, and that Rahim has concentrated on studying the evolution of his thought up to this point.
Rahim traces the development of Marx's political philosophy as a young Hegelian who had borrowed two ideas from that source and which would be crucial to the development of his thought. In his view, "Marx's first, and momentous, breakthrough in the development of his worldview came in his comprehensive critique of Hegel's political philosophy, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law…written in 1843." In 1844, he embarked on a serious study of several political economists. Rahim argues that "the work that had the most significant and lasting impact on Marx's thought was The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith." He further proposes that "the contribution from Adam Smith was of the same magnitude, in terms of the development of Marx's worldview, as the inversion of Hegel…."
Rahim asserts considerable independence of viewpoint in analyzing Marx: "I have rejected the conventional interpretation of Marx's conception in which a clear separation is made between the 'base' made up of the 'forces of production,' and the superstructure of thought, and in which the base is treated as an independent variable determining the character of the dependent variable, the superstructure. (It is this relationship that supposedly makes the conception 'materialist')." Rahim further asserts that neither is the materialist conception a description of reality, nor is it a scientific law. The author is categorical in his interpretation of a widely attributed philosophy of Marx: "He (Marx) specifically denied that his worldview was a 'general historical-philosophical theory.' By implication, in this conception, there is no room for the view ('evolutionism') that all societies are inevitably moving towards a final destination, a communist society. Such a view would be un-empirical, supra-historical and, therefore, contrary to Marx's thought." Strong assertion, this, and a possible forum for some intense debate!
Rahim provides glimpses of other insights into the life of the young Marx. We learn that he enjoyed the company of the German poet Heinrich Heine, more than twenty years his senior, who "was a democrat and a mild kind of socialist who had no sympathy with communist ideas…." He was also on good terms with another German poet, Georg Herwegh. In Rahim's estimation, Marx believed that poets were exceptional people and should be judged by rules other than those appropriate to ordinary mortals.
The author is often very assertive about his own viewpoints regarding Marx, and he backs his writing up with erudite scholarship and much sound analysis. And so he comments, "Marx's own theory of political economy, taking the classical theory as its starting point, sought to identify forces within the capitalist economy that would provide the dynamic of historical development, that is, changes in the capitalist mode of production. The fundamental point here is that the capitalist society, like all earlier societies based on the division of society between property owners and those who work for them, is based on antagonism."
Eric Rahim sums up his narrative of Karl Marx's formative years and his evolution as a brilliant social thinker with some emphatic observations of his own, something that draws attention to his own scholarship on his subject and his ideas and breakthroughs: "In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx wrote that just as political economists were the 'scientific representatives' of the bourgeoisie, the communists were the 'theoreticians' of the working class. So long as the working class does not sufficiently develop in size and class consciousness, utopian thinking prevails. With the development of the working class, however, the communist theoreticians' science, which comes from the historical movement and conscious association with it, ceases to be doctrinaire and, instead, becomes revolutionary. This is the vision to which Marx's theory of political economy sought to give effect, to theoretically demonstrate the mechanism of transition from capitalism to communism."
Shahid Alam is a thespian; Professor, Media and Communication Department, Independent University of Bangladesh.