Volume 2, No. 9, September 2020
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Eric Rahim: A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview (Praxis Press, 2020)
Dr. Taimur Rahman
Marx is back. From protests against economic inequality in recent decades and the rise of a new social democratic politics (such as Sanders, Corbyn, and Syriza) the world is once against interested in what Karl Marx had to say about capitalism.
While the Left in Pakistan never fully disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union (it only went relatively dormant), there have been very few significant theoretical works from the Pakistani Left in the entire span of its history. This is a sweeping generalisation against which people will remind me of the contribution of Sibte Hassan, Dr Mubarik Ali, Dr Jaffer and many others. And while their contributions cannot be denied, the kind of deep study of Marxist classics that has characterised the Left in Europe and even in India is conspicuous by its absence in Pakistan. Take for example the simple fact that the vast majority of Marx’s works have never even been translated into Urdu. Even the great Das Capital has been rather poorly translated by Syed M Taqi and leaves the reader more dazed than any other version of the book. Add to this the general problem that discourse in the Urdu language is almost completely cut off from the scientific as well as philosophical discourse and tradition and one can begin to see how seriously the intellectual gap between the English and the Urdu speaking world is growing.
In Pakistan it has largely been the English speaking intelligentsia, recruited mainly from the upper classes, that has had the linguistic and intellectual skills to delve into the deeper works of Marxism. But even here one can count the number of Marxist academics of international repute on the fingers of one hand. Hamza Alavi, Eqbal Ahmed, Aijaz Ahmed are amongst the few who are frequently cited.
It is therefore extremely refreshing to read Eric Rahim’s work A Promethean Vision on the life and ideas of Karl Marx. This is a work dedicated with great love and care to the evolution of Karl Marx into a ‘Marxist’. The work makes it clear that it does not examine the collective intellectual product of both Marx and Engels. This of course is a bit of an artificial construct since it is nearly impossible to say with infallible accuracy what can be ascribed to Marx or Engels alone, so intertwined is their intellectual legacy.
Rahim’s work is a review of Marx’s development from his doctoral thesis in 1841 till 1851. This is a short book of 150 pages, although it may still prove daunting for those who are uninitiated in the terminology of Marxism. It is a book for the intermediate reader who wishes to deepen their understanding of the early period of Marx’s life and intellectual journey.
The best chapters in view are the ones that describe the young Marx’s journey towards Communism through his engagement with Hegel. This is an extremely difficult side of Marx to write about. Not only because Hegel is difficult to decipher, but also because Marx tends to be equally difficult to decipher, given that he is writing in Hegelian terminology. But Rahim has done a credible job in separating the wood from the trees and making the argument that Marx had approached Communist ideas from within the Hegelian concept of alienation before embarking on an explication of dialectical materialism or political economy.
The transition to materialism, however, is not dealt with in an equally convincing manner. The book loses some of its flow by not transitioning directly into the materialism of Feuerbach but circling back to it a little later. In particular, and more importantly, the influence and critique of Feuerbach is not handled in a convincing manner.
Rahim cannot be blamed for the view that the Theses on Feuerbach describes Marx’s active materialism. In other words that the mind is not passive but actively constructs the world it creates. This Neo-Kantian interpretation of Marx is pervasive but totally incorrect. Diamond and Struik (Notes 1 & 2 below) have demonstrated with careful textual analysis that Marx is not dealing at all with the relationship between mind as an active or passive recipient of ideas but rather that Marx is arguing the case for the independent existence of matter and the mind as part of that very material world. And that finally, Feuerbach’s great mistake is not so much that he misunderstands the relationship between mind and matter, nor that he misunderstands the relationship between an active or a passive mind but that he is unable to understand that the material world is itself the creation of a historical evolution. To put it simply, there is no actual history or political economy in Feuerbach’s analysis. The central problem that Marx had with the Essence of Christianity by Feuerbach is that it didn’t examine or place religion within the real material, economic, and political history of humanity.
Surprisingly, the last two chapters on political economy end before they complete Marx’s argument about surplus value, the laws of development of capitalism, or the falling rate of profit. This is all the more surprising given that Rahim is trained as a political economist and one would have hoped that he would get into the thorny problems of the transformation problem or some assessment of whether Marx offers us an insight that is obscured by neoclassical economics.
While these may be some of the aspects of the book that I would have liked to have seen, I would highly recommend this work to someone wanting to understand the evolution of Marx from Hegelianism to the materialist interpretation of history. This is where the book remains really superb because it is able to present a complex development in a manner that can be grasped by the general reader. The strength of the book is that while other biographies tend to get lost in tangential details, Rahim is able to construct a gripping narrative of young Marx’s intellectual journey by sifting the wood from the trees.
The writer is an Associate Professor at LUMS, Lahore, lead singer and guitarist of Laal Band, and Secretary General of the Mazdoor Kissan Party