Communism's Legacy
Marx at 200

His writings had greater influence on the 20th century than those of anyone else. But is Karl Marx still relevant in the 21st century?

Appeared in: Volume 13, Number 4 | Published on: January 19, 2018
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns 1960-2000 (Random House 2002) and American Media Politics in Transition (McGraw Hill 2008).
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  • Loader2000

    The great Marxist appeal is the result of two factors. One is that his manifesto was relatively easy to understand by people who didn’t study political philosophy and economics for a living.

    Two is that Marxism appeals to atavistic hunter-gatherer instincts that reside in us all. They way early humans lived (and the way a few primitive tribes still live) is a society where you have a personal, familial relationship with everyone and most everything is shared and everything you do (hunting, making a hut, cooking) personally benefits everyone in society and everyone in your family since they are one and the same. Even though such a society is incompatible with serious industrial, scientific and technological development, most of us have an instinct which idealizes it.

    For those of us who are reasonably happy and successful in an industrial society with specialized labor, the trade-offs are worth it. We value modern medicine, freedom to travel, food security, and most of our children surviving to adulthood more than the hunter gatherer lifestyle in which communitarian living is feasible. After all, we still have family and we can still to what we are passionate about in our free time, even if our jobs are just okay. We can even enjoy a sense of community and belonging through our churches, volunteer organization and hobby clubs. However, for those that feel alienated from their families, who don’t enjoy work (or don’t get, or never learned to get, satisfaction from specialized work), or otherwise don’t fit or feel a sense of community, Marxism will always have appeal. Marxism also has appeal to some those who feel great compassion toward those who don’t fit it and who lack the imagination to think of another solution besides simply applying their hunter-gatherer instincts to a modern industrial society and hoping they will mesh in a way that is somehow different from everything other time it has been attempted.

    • Ellen

      Wow, that was a couple of paragraphs of great insight. I don’t usually write on Saturday, but your comments are worth agreeing with. The religious angle is something you should expound on in your next post. That is the second great point you made.

      1st great point: Marxism’s appeal to European nonintellectuals was exactly as you state. It was essentially a philosophy of envy and vengeance. Envy of those who were wealthier than the working class laborers living in cities and looking at the inherited wealth of the upper class and the accumulating wealth of the entrepreneurial merchants. Life seemed so unfair to an uneducated, simple villager with no connections who moves to a city and ends up as a disposable pawn of the sweatshop industries of those years. Marxism provided an intellectualized rationale for hatred of the moneyed classes, whether they deserved their money or not. It also suggested a political program that a working class semi-literate could join for the purposes of stripping the wealth off of those that had it.

      2d great point: Communal life, including extended family ties and religious life, was the great consolation of the European or Russian villager in the 19th century. Religious life gave people a collective sense of purpose and shared destiny, while extended families provided a social and material safety net, as well as people to talk to, marry, and share life’s sorrows with. There were many sorrows to share in the life of a poor villager or urbanite of 1850. And there was no internet chat group to go to, or therapist, or 100 channels of mindless entertainment to distract oneself with.

      The failure of Marxism has taken away the safety valve and utopian dreams of all the down and out, bereft, underemployed, and lonely people who inhabit the wasteland of the post-industrial West. Maybe religious life will be revived among these people. I hope so, because the alternative is endless civil strife, like what you see in the Arab world. The liberal elite helped to kill off religious and family life for the majority, and created a garbage culture of trashy, short-term vulgarity, and a vocabulary and political life of grievance-mongering as the substitute. They are not a leadership worth having or keeping. More than the Romanovs, they deserve the firing squad. All of them. The election of Donald Trump is the American version of the firing squad.

    • CheckYourself

      I’ve met two types of self-proclaimed Marxists and communists.
      1. The guy framing houses without medical insurance, often born into the lower classes and had a disadvantage from the get. These guys tend to go either hard right or very hard left. Same with the low to medium skilled labor whose jobs have been outsourced. Note: not in to a guy named Gonzales or Wang instead of Smith.
      2. Extremely privileged, often outright spoiled kids from the middle class all the way through to the gated communities of SoCal, etc.
      I understand why the first type might go for the extremes. They have more in common with the surfs of feudal china and Russia that really did rise up and impose communism.
      But the spoiled kids walking around, colloquially known as the Starbucks Marxists with their made in China iPhone and Walmart Che t-shirt, they are just unbearable. They don’t realize that they are the targets of a communist uprising. Their educated parents and intellectuals are some of the first to be slaughtered. Happened in Russia and China. Do they really think that the rough and tumble, out of work factory man is going to follow some revolution led by Harvard or Berkeley rich kids?


    Seems that Marx is not only alive and well on campuses and in certain urban centers around the West, but in fact thriving just the way McCarthy could’ve predicted. The man was attacked by a system infested with communists even in his own day. Stalin knew about the bomb before it had even been dropped on Japan.

    • Nancy

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  • FriendlyGoat

    No, Marx is not relevant. His ghost is merely trotted out on every occasion to derail more important and more enlightened debates on what has been observable in economics and government much more clearly during the past 140 years. Dwelling on Marx now is no smarter than trying to fit all modern anthropology inside the confines of Darwin (or Genesis). There are always “firsts” which are incomplete in every field. Time marches on. We are not obliged to credit or discredit every thought in the future by its remote similarity or dissimilarity to that which someone wrote in the past with only the benefit of less insight. The same electricity in (the story of) Franklin’s kite powers your computer today, but you don’t successfully plug yours into any such unrefined hookup.

    • Lottie

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  • Angel Martin

    I thought Marxism had been revived by Piketty, except with an increasing rather than decreasing rate of profit.

    Maybe it’s like how global cooling turned into global warming.

    (Hey, anyone can make a sign error)

  • Gary Hemminger

    Well I have news for this author, Marx is alive and well here in the US. The universities are teaching it like it is our savoir. Marxism must be attempted again somewhere in the world or even here in CA so people can see what a disaster it is. Otherwise they forget and go back to his teachings with reverence.

  • Marathon-Youth

    We know the effect of Karl Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” had on the 20th century world. It led to the death of millions, wiped out Buddhism in China and Tibet and suppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union. It generated the Frankfurt School of Marxism and along with the “45 Goals of Communism to take over America ( a set of goals derived from the book “The Naked Communist) undercut American and Christian Traditions.
    Marxism was reinvigorated in America after the great migration from Russia starting in the mid 1980’s. Some preferred to go to Israel but the majority came to the US. E. Michael Jones claims our foreign policy changed due to these Russian refugees.

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