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Why Marx Now?
On the continued relevance of Marx

Michael Thielen is Karl Marx double in Trier. He sits in the garden of the Karl Marx House.
Michael Thielen is Karl Marx double in Trier. He sits in the garden of the Karl Marx House. | Photo: Stefanie Preuin © picture alliance / SZ Photo

Regardless of one’s opinions about the political movements affiliated with his name, it is impossible to deny that Karl Marx (1818-1883) remains one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Marx Now probes the meaning of his intellectual legacy for our moment

By Sina Rahmani

Indeed, the identity of modern Germany as “the land of poets and thinkers” (Das Land der Dichter und Denker) owes a great deal to the man born two centuries ago in the small provincial town of Trier. Over the course of the twentieth century, more than two billion people lived under a form of government that utilized (or claimed to utilize) his ideas about economic production and social organization.

Modern day unionism and the hard-won protections and rights that millions of workers around the globe enjoy are inextricably linked to the pioneering and fearless radicalism of Marx and his allies.  Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, one could expect to stumble across a bust of his face or a statue of him in thousands of cities and villages across Europe and Asia.  Successive generations of scholars across the globe dedicated their careers to collecting, preserving, and debating his life and writings, and countless universities, schools, and even cities were named in his honor.

A major reappraisal

Two centuries after his birth, a century after the Soviet Revolution and three decades since the end of the Cold War, the Goethe-Institut’s Marx Now probes the afterlife of Karl Marx and the various strands of Marxism derived from his oeuvre. Despite all the experts who gleefully announced his demise after the end of the Cold War, Marx is currently experiencing a major reappraisal. Be it Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx (2018), numerous excellent biographies about him and his circle of friends and family or the thousands of reading groups, inspired by the ‘Occupy’-protests, combing through Das Kapital – Marxist theory is no longer the private domain of professional Marxologists and a narrow band of self-declared radicals.

More than a hagiography

But Marx Now is intended to be more than simple hagiography  – the man was hardly a saint, as his private letters make clear. And, more importantly, for millions of people from South America to Europe to Southeast Asia, his name is very intimately associated with violence and trauma: a natural consequence of the countless authoritarian police states that used his ideas to legitimize their anti-democratic rule. Marx Now probes the meaning of his intellectual legacy for our moment. The world in which Marx lived was only beginning to feel the effects of industrial capitalism; it would take more than a century after his death in 1884 for capitalism to attain unrestrained global dominance. While he did envision what we today call the global assembly line, the nineteenth-century Marx could never have fathomed how mass digitization would fundamentally change not only how we produce and consume virtually every kind of good and service, but also how we think about the world itself.  
The Goethe-Institut has asked a diverse group of philosophers, intellectuals, and artists about the meaning of Karl Marx for our contemporary world.  In the face of widespread economic and ecological despair, what – if anything – can Marx do for us now? And how, to borrow his own phrase, can we use Marx now to not simply interpret the world but to change it?