Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2016, 768 pp., $35
New Haven: Yale, 2011, 272 pp., $40
In March 2017, traveling through Havana, I pointed out to my Cuban guide one humming construction site amid all the gorgeously decrepit, decaying buildings around us, many in the midst of reconstruction efforts that seemed permanently stalled. My guide laughed, because this building was being built by Indian construction workers, brought in and housed by the Cuban state and a capitalist partner. How, I asked, could it possibly be profitable to fly construction workers halfway around the world to do a job? Were there no Cubans with the requisite skills? My guide assured me that Cuba’s elaborate vocational education system produced many such workers, but they could not be hired for the project. In the modern Cuban economy, paying Cuban construction workers the wages received by the Indians would have been socially disruptive, because they would then be making more than Cuban doctors, lawyers, and professors. Cuban construction workers, once trained, avoid low paying public jobs, and instead work in the black/gray market on projects where they can make more in a single day than a month at official communist rates.1
In a country allegedly devoted to the philosophy of Karl Marx, who sought the abolition of private property, the public infrastructure was in a near constant state of crisis, but the private property of the wealthy, the politically connected, or those who worked for visiting capitalist foreigners was well kept indeed.
For many, such hypocrisy and economic absurdity, along with the crushing political oppression of the Cuban state, are the main legacy of Karl Marx—who turns 200 years old, as it were, on May 5. The destructive impact of Marxist economics remains real for Cubans, but it is hardly the entire story. In that very same Havana, Cubans have access to a better health care and education system than the poor do in most countries of Latin America or the Caribbean. Most folks would rather be middle class in Guatemala City than in Havana, but only a fool would choose to be poor in Guatemala over Cuba. This is true even if we add in political freedoms, since the Guatemalan meltdown of the 1980s scored a far higher per capita body count than even the highest estimates of Castro’s killings. It is in places like Havana that one must wrestle with a question long thought answered: Of what use is Karl Marx and his thought in the 21st century? And it is a question relevant far beyond the last few putatively Marxist states.
In one sense, Marx at 200 is both up and down these days, down in the sense that few regimes take him seriously, certainly not Vietnam, China, or North Korea, compared to how many once did. In the first two, the party cadres compete to invest in capitalist entities, and the third survived a famine by allowing private markets to emerge on a limited basis. Only in Cuba and Venezuela do we find governments trying more or less to be Marxist, and the Venezuelans are currently reaping the whirlwind largely as a result. Even Cuba has moderated its Marxism, and further liberalization seems likely.
But Marx is up in the sense that some, such as French economist Thomas Piketty see current events, particularly since the great recession of 2007-09, as confirming Marx. As inequality rises to heights not seen since robber baron days, it is natural for some to turn to the great enemy of industrial capitalism for insight. In Britain, an avowed Marxist leads the second-largest party, and, while much attention is paid in Europe to the rise of the nationalist Right, far Left movements with Marxist elements remain important players in Greece, Germany, France, and even occasionally Japan.
Marx has also made a comeback on the Right, as a bogeyman with a near constant presence on Conservative Twitter. Marxism is now the catch-all phrase for “things we don’t like” among many conservatives. Laughably, the Democratic Party is frequently labeled Marxist, as was President Obama. To conservatives, Marx is a living threat, blamed for all the past crimes of communist regimes from the Soviet Union to Cambodia, and also for atheism, the national debt, and, oddly enough, uber-capitalist George Soros.
While few in Western politics endorse Marxism, as opposed to milder, more reformist versions of democratic socialism, explicit defenders of modern Marxism are not hard to find on the academic Left. Literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right drips with absolution of Marx for nearly all errors, and manages to give him credit for much of what is good in the world. Marx is not as influential today in Western higher education the way he was, say, in Germany and Austria in the 1920s and 1930s, or France in the 1950s and 1960s, but he has his passionate if small following on campus here and abroad.
To make way through it all, it is helpful to have an important new biography by Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. Following Stedman Jones, a Professor of the History of Ideas at Queen Mary, University of London, it is plausible to label Marx the greatest single influence on the 20th century. He not only inspired political revolutions that seized much of the world, he also provided attenuated intellectual support for democratic socialist movements and parties in nations that did not ultimately become communist. Both socialism and communism existed before Marx, but with the Manifesto, Marx and Engels eventually convinced millions that capitalism was doomed and that only communism offered a solution. And with volume one of Capital, Marx allegedly demonstrated the scientific rightness of his Manifesto’s predictions. His influence on sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and numerous other disciplines remains vast and by no means negative on balance. It is impossible to imagine 20th-century continental philosophy without Marx. Marx, along with Nietzsche in a very different way, propounded the idea that man shapes his own nature, and must become aware of this, and transcend it, if he wishes to live free. There had been atheists before Marx, too, but none so successful at freeing humanity’s conception of itself from the static binding of deistic thought.
There is also a lesson for academics and writers in Marx’s unparalleled fame—it matters less if you are right than if you are first to cross-pollinate. By 1857, if a Venn diagram had been constructed of those who understood Hegelian philosophy and all its offshoots, Ricardo’s economics, French political history and socialist thought, a bearded German refugee living in obscurity in London would have been the only person at the point of overlap. No economist could challenge his philosophy, no philosopher his economics, and neither could touch his grasp of Proudhon. To understand many of his ideas and to find his myriad errors among them even now takes devouring a library, which is one marvelous thing about the footnotes in Stedman-Jones’s tome; he is a steady guide through all these topics.
Marx was in error on many points, but his genius at synthesizing remains a wonder. It was a deft mind indeed that took the Hegelian philosopher Feuerbach’s insights into the nature of religion in the West, and adopted that method of abstraction to apply to the economic history of mankind. Feuerbach believed man had abstracted God from his emptiness, and became enslaved by the phantom he constructed. Marx responded: “Just as it is not religion which creates man, but man who creates religion, so it is not the constitution which creates the people, but the people which creates the constitution.” By exposing the economic reality at the core of our abstract ideas about property, God, and justice, Marx believed he had exposed the complete secret of human development since the dawn of history. It was a bold, captivating vision that attracted millions, although most would have never made it through six pages of Hegel or Feuerbach, let alone of Marx’s opus, volume one of Capital. And while Capital is a densely woven text that makes one glad that Hegel never wrote much about British economics, Marx the synthesizer and the popularizer was never better than in the Manifesto. It may be the most successful work of propaganda since Paul’s letters.
Marx’s intellectual timing was also propitious. Western political theory since Hobbes had been built around social contract as the origin of political life. Through Locke and Rousseau and on into Marx’s own time, a vision of society emerging from some grand bargain among the people to create self-government was dominant.2 But Marx represents a turning point in which that idea had become ever less credible. In its place, Marx erected a materialist conception of history occurring in stages of economic development.
Materialist though it was, in keeping with the default positivism of the time, at its core was in fact a romantic vision of natural man, illustrating the debt Marx owed to Rousseau. But it was a Rousseauian idea transformed by Hegelian influence, a teleology lifted up on the wings of an abstract dialectic as only Germans sometimes seems capable of doing. That teleology rested on the premise that man was inherently social, that his existence had value and meaning only in relation to other humans, and, above all, that the essence of human nature and existence was the relationship between man and woman. In a passage that even conservative Catholics could affirm, Marx wrote in “Private Property and Communism”:
The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. . . . From the character of this relationship follows how much man as a species-being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. . . . This relationship also reveals the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need—the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being.
Further, that the core relationship of man to woman was cheapened by prostitution and rampant bourgeois philandering was a recurrent theme in Marx’s work.3 And all of us are prostitutes under capitalism, unless we’re capitalists, in which case we are pimps:
Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which falls not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes—and the latter’s abomination is still greater—the capitalist, etc., also comes under this head.
Marx believed that his task was nothing less than to return man to his natural state of being, and he conceptualized capitalism as the supreme alienation of man from his own nature, from himself. This was crude Rousseauian Romanticism, in which the noble savage previously owned his own labor and was therefore somehow nobler than the industrial worker whose labor belonged to another. Marx was the magician who would retain all the fruits of industrial capitalism and technology but allow us each to work only for our own pleasure and bliss.
Regardless of whether any of this is true, we can still admire the scope of Marx’s ambition. Has any thinker since Marx attempted anything remotely similar in scale, beyond deluded charlatans like Ayn Rand? To explain all of human history in a new way? Since Marx, the disciplinary boundaries, the depth built up in each silo of human knowledge, the withering criticism facing any new systemic thinker have mounted to the point that few have even attempted to conquer these obstacles. Perhaps Jürgen Habermas among modern thinkers can match Marx for mastery and application of the entirety of Western philosophy, but Habermas’s sense of balance and moderation disqualifies him from ever becoming the kind of protean figure that Marx was. Marx’s personality was as grand as his ambition, and his learning nearly equal to it. He could converse on Shakespeare or Goethe in one breath and upon the next exhale expound on Democritus, higher math, Adam Smith, Darwin, or the latest intrigue in the British Tory Party. He earned fluency in German, French, English, and also reading knowledge of Dutch, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Nordic languages. At one point after the age of 50, he decided he needed Russian, too, and within a year was absorbing Russian poetry competently. One of his last projects was an original work in mathematics, attempting to understand the foundations of infinitesimal calculus.
Marx was protean, but not necessarily consistent. One of the illusions that Stedman-Jones deftly exposes is the supposed coherence of Marxist thought. Much of the compelling clarity in the Manifesto, with its straightforward explanation of world history and capitalism, probably needs to be credited to Engels. Engels, as he demonstrated in his own pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, was far better at simplifying and focusing on concerns likely to captivate readers and attract followers.
Moreover, Engels altered Marxist interpretations in several works, creating a “scientific socialism” allegedly in consonance with Darwinism. At Marx’s funeral, Engels situated Marx and Darwin as scientific equals, the latter explaining the emergence of the human species, the former proving how humans inevitably developed socially. Engels was also the main author of a pastiche of a book often attributed to Marx, The German Ideology, and altered Marx’s drafts of the later volumes of Capital so that Marx’s criticism of capitalism built up to a clearer prediction of collapse, a prediction Marx had not succeeded at backing up and so shied away from in his drafts. Even in life, Engels subtly pushed Marx to edit out the more explicitly Hegelian aspects of his thought, for the pragmatic reason that few readers would know Hegel sufficiently to get the point, so far had Hegel’s star fallen since his dominant era of 1825-45.
Much the same could now be said of Marx in modern thought; he is far more often mentioned than read, and what is read tends to be excerpts from the Manifesto or the early notebooks rather than Capital. A thinker who sought to show how economics was at the very core of human existence and history, and that religion, politics, law, and all our beliefs were mere frippery in service to the economic elite of the day, is today ignored in practical economic life and thought. Marx is preserved only at the margins where radicals insist that human nature expresses only competitive urges split down into class and identity warfare—which of course contradicts the Marxian premise that human nature is fundamentally cooperative. (It is of course both competitive and cooperative.)
Marx believed that he was writing in the final days of global capitalism, and yet capitalism is even more dominant around the globe than ever, with fewer challenges to its hegemony than was the case in Marx’s day. In the heart of the Plaza de la Revolution where Castro thundered on Marxist theory and practice for hours in the Caribbean sun, capitalist entrepreneurs now vie for tourist dollars. Similar observations could be made about Tiananmen Square or most other previously sacred Marxist spots.
Still, Marx’s perceived effect on politics and on academia remains a firm conviction for many. Why this is so remains a puzzle worth pondering. It cannot be said that Marx was an accurate prophet of where the world was going, whatever his merit as a chronicler of capitalism in his own day. Never has a prominent thinker predicted so much so wrongly. From one of his earliest writings, in which he foretold the eminent demise of the German middle class at the very moment that class was rising and growing in power and wealth to the constant predictions of worldwide capitalist collapse and global revolution in the last thirty years of his life, Marx was a wretched seer. At moments he was almost giddy at the prospect of mass bloodshed; no warmongering general ever longed for conflict as much as Marx hoped for war between Prussia and Russia, or Britain and Russia, or Russia and France—really Russia and anyone, given how deeply he hated Czarist Russia. Any holocaust was welcome if it upset the applecart of capitalism, and advanced revolution!
His visceral longing for revolution and global economic collapse led him to many errors. Upon seeing a demonstration in London in 1855 he wrote “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the English Revolution began in Hyde Park yesterday.” He predicted that after the Civil War, America would no longer appeal to immigrants because the war had centralized capital, and thus ended the freeholder lifestyle that had forced capitalists to pay workers more there. Ever the economic Cassandra, he predicted in 1864 that the concentration of land ownership in England would become “singularly simplified,” resulting in perhaps as few as six landholders. His old comrade, one of the many Marx broke with in a long life of endless interpersonal conflict, Arnold Ruge, nailed a fundamental weakness of Marx as a thinker: “My friend, you believe in what you wish for.”
Most importantly, the mechanism by which his entire economic philosophy would operate was built around an analytic error that led him to predictive ruin. Based on an early version of Ricardo, Marx believed that all value in a capitalist economy had to derive from surplus labor, the uncompensated labor that the worker provided for the factory owner beyond the money the worker earned to cover his mere subsistence. Marx also believed that his research confirmed that workers’ pay in capitalism would always decline to mere subsistence, a linked error that did incalculable damage to efforts at political Marxism.
Marx believed, too, that supply and demand were ephemeral, and that the natural value of a product would emerge as the equilibrium once the static of momentary shifts in supply and demand had resolved. His hostility to markets was constant: “Wherever it is competition as such which determines anything, the determination is accidental, purely empirical, and only pedantry or fantasy would seek to represent this accident as a necessity.” This conviction is no doubt one reason that, despite Marx’s claim to see the development of social relations in the context of materialist factors, his socio-political history sketch, as expressed in Capital, was far from accurate. He hated markets so much that he could not distinguish well how they actually developed.
In a system centered around labor value alone, his supreme confidence that wages would decline as capitalism advanced never wavered. “The more wealth the worker produces, the more his production increases in power and scope, the poorer he becomes. The more commodities the worker produces, the cheaper a commodity he becomes,” he wrote in 1844 in an essay on “Alienated Labour.” In volume III of Capital, he made the Malthusian prediction that even if capitalists paid workers more, it would still lead to lower wages because workers would respond by having more children. Over and over in his economic writings, he wrote that capitalism would inevitably result in workers suffering, even though the economic data of his own time did not convincingly show this, and the opposite has occurred. In 1864, he insisted that not only would the lives of workers in England not improve, they would decline, as death by starvation continued as an everyday occurrence:
In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those whose interest it is to hedge other people into a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses; but that, on the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labour must tend to deepen social contrast and point to social antagonisms. Death of starvation rose almost to the rank of an institution, during this intoxicating epoch of economical progress, in the metropolis of the British empire.
Marx also erred when he foresaw an inevitable emergence of two starkly defined classes, bourgeoisie and proletarian. Unlike Schumpeter, he failed to give any credit to the entrepreneur, consistently holding that capitalists played no role in the success of their endeavors. Capitalists were at best successful gamblers rather than titans of industry. He also, again unlike Schumpeter, failed to consider how modern institutions, public and private, would create armies of bureaucrats. He was dismissive of the growing services industry in his own day and didn’t understand the emerging importance of stock companies.
There is a final irony at the heart of Marxism. Marx calls on us to live vivid lives as actualized individuals, to free ourselves from unnatural and artificial desires and wants imposed from without via alienation, commodification, and fetishization. But these individuals are, in the Marxist system, subject to irresistible impersonal forces that move through history in a set progression. Karl Popper pointed out the contradiction at the heart of every Marxist recruiter’s appeal: Marxists call for self-sacrifice to bring about the inevitable. The inexorable nature of Marxism in its original version may be ultimately its greatest weakness, and not coincidentally its greatest resemblance to religion. Jefferson might have believed republicanism should rule the world, but he did not believe it to be a scientific inevitability.
Given all his time-bound blindness, his errors, and his failed predictions, why is Marx relevant at all? After all, Marx did not even invent the term capitalism; French socialist Louis Blanc did in 1850.
Perhaps it is because Marx’s insights into 19th-century capitalism remain remarkable, and echo with certain truths even today. He was the first to grasp capitalism as a global force that would fundamentally alter everything, from the tiniest economic interaction to the collisions of empires. He saw how capitalism would not respect any boundaries but intrude into all aspects of life. He also grasped better than most how much of capitalism in his day involved extraordinary levels of cruelty. Capital the book is built around a number of seminal errors, but Marx was not wrong to be enraged about the suffering produced by early industrial capitalism. Stedman Jones rightly credits Marx with practically founding modern sociological analysis via his careful deployment of data and anecdotes in his indictment of British industry.4 And thanks to capitalism’s then newly acquired global reach, the world was often blind to the cruelty at its base. “A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children.” Marx remains relevant in the sweatshops of the Third World where children work stitching the clothing of the capitalists even today.
Marx’s long tracery in Capital of the ineffectiveness of legislation to restrict working hours for children, women, and adults, in the face of decades of capitalist resistance, also remains a powerful indictment of representative government. How could one imagine Parliament had any concern for the working class when children as young six were losing limbs and lives on a predictable basis, for decades, without any effective intervention by the British authorities? So can Marx be at least be given credit for ending such capitalist abuses as child labor?
One popular myth about Marx, propagated by Eagleton among many others, is that he was a reformer who deserves credit for “saving” capitalism from itself, as the reforms of FDR, Atlee, and others moderated what otherwise would have been capitalism’s inevitable self-destruction. While it is possible, perhaps likely, that the specter of Marxism induced some moderation among some liberals in power—as it had earlier induced Otto von Bismarck to support the institution of social security for workers—to give Marx direct credit for this misinterprets his message about economics and politics. Marx directly opposed reform except when tactically required for momentary advantage: “An enforced increase of wages . . . would therefore be nothing but better remuneration for the slaves, and would have won, neither for the worker nor for labour, their human significance and worth.” Later, in his address to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850, Marx made an even broader rejection of reform:
The democratic petty bourgeoisie do, however wish for the workers better pay and more security, and hope to secure this by means of partial state employment and by welfare measures; in short, they hope to bribe the workers with more or less covert alms and to break their revolutionary force by making their present situation bearable . . . . [F]or us it cannot be a question of changing private property but only of destroying it, not of smothering class antagonisms but only of wiping out classes, not of improving existing society but of founding a new one.
At each stage of his life, Marx never consistently supported reforms or effectively rallied workers, because he didn’t understand that partial measures are the lifeblood of democratic legislation. Marx was remarkably well informed about contemporary British, European, and even American politics, but he was far less effective as a strategist or analyst than his level of knowledge would have predicted. Throughout his life, he failed to grasp how politics worked in the real world, which tracks well with his disdain for politics and his longing to obliterate them. This was primarily the case for three reasons.
First, his Hegelianism, combined with his worship of the French Revolution, led him to assert dogmatically that every revolution and nation would go through a bourgeois phase, then a proletarian phase, which he thought characterized the French Revolution. Late in life, he began to think that perhaps Russia and some other nations could escape this inevitable progression, but for most of his adult existence he calmly predicted this in all circumstances. His problem was, as Nietzsche would have put it, his will to a system.
Second, his belief that economics dominated all other motives made him blind to how real political humans operated. A thinker who blithely predicts that, once England removed itself, Protestant and Catholic Irish tenants would unite against their landlords, declares himself to be a political naïf. This prediction was made after Marx had studied the Irish question for years, and yet he still failed to understand the Irish people at the level that the most casual observer would have.
Religion was a consistent blind spot for Marx. Marx not only did not believe in God, he did not think religion should or would long play an important role in human affairs. One of his early disappointments in his Paris exile was realizing that many French socialists actually took the Gospel seriously, and were socialists because they were Christians. The contrast with Nietzsche or Max Weber is telling. While Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, a significant portion of his philosophical writings addresses how believing in different faiths results in different outcomes for individuals and societies. Even the echo of God’s death, the collapse of faith and the looming threat of nihilism, was of cataclysmic importance for Nietzschean philosophy. And famously, Weber saw lingering differences in modern capitalist states depending on whether they were Protestant or Catholic in origin. For Marx, religion could not be less important, and the sooner the world realized this the better.
Marx famously failed to accurately account for nationalism as well. In the Manifesto, Marx anticipated that capitalism would strip the worker of “every trace of national character.” He fiercely advocated for free trade throughout his life in part because it would teach the workers of the world that they were all the same, all in one universal fight with capitalists everywhere. Free trade, he wrote, “dissolves the old nationalities and pushes to the extreme the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” His failure to understand nationalism meant that, for all his brilliance, much of the grand politics in the 19th century was impenetrable to him. His disdain for the rural peasants and urban working class who flocked to Napoleon III’s nationalist banner, ending the best hope for revolution following the 1848 upheaval, infuses his 18th Breaumaire book. He could never understand that Napoleon III represented an important new harnessing of nationalism to speak to the worries of the lower classes upset by modernity’s economic, social, and religious upheavals. Instead, he forced the situation in France to fit his preordained vision of class struggle. A sad irony of history is that almost all successful Marxist movements have been led by nationalists, whether in Cuba, China, Vietnam, Venezuela, North Korea, or elsewhere.
Finally, Marx never grasped how limited government worked, and lost faith in democracy early in his life. One of the most important early Marxist texts, On the Jewish Question, has been pondered over incessantly as to whether it shows Marx to be irredeemably anti-Semitic, a self-hating Jew, or someone merely using Jewish stereotypes to illustrate what capitalism does to all humans. But it is most useful to show that Marx at that time still had some faith in bourgeois democracy. Still, the evolution of Marx toward ever more radical politics, and his ever-decreasing faith in any type of representative democracy, began early. In his doctoral thesis on Greek philosophy, he articulated a desire to bring theory into practice, a not uncommon use of Hegel to envision a society progressing toward a brighter, more human future. By the time he was a newspaper editor in the early 1840s, he was more skeptical of progress via liberal republicanism but still advocated some democratic reforms. Shortly, though, he embraced violent revolution as the only possible solution, a position from which he subsequently seldom wavered. When the Paris Commune rose up in 1870, Marx was jubilant that the executive committee set up a judiciary lacking any independence, and then united legislative and executive power. Separation of powers was unnecessary so long as true proletarians were in charge.5 It is difficult to estimate how many have subsequently died in gulags after show trials or no trials at all because one man saw limited government not just as insignificant but contrary to “scientific” socialism.
His “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany,” the pamphlet distributed in 1848 with the Manifesto, did not mention free speech, individual rights, freedom of assembly or press, or trial by jury, at a time when Germany had none of these rights guaranteed. Such rights were not significant for Marx compared to giving power to the workers. Engels spoke for Marx when he labeled the English Constitution “a big lie”: “[T]he old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. . . . all these pretty little gewgaws,” is how Marx himself later referred to such ideas. One reels at the ingratitude and the blindness: These two German exiles, whose writings on politics and economics would have landed them in prison in almost any polity on the Continent, treating with disdain the British liberties that solely were responsible for their own freedom. It is therefore entirely unsurprising that the regimes set up under the banner of Marxism have been, without exception, places where freedom of speech and tolerance of dissent are under constant assault.
That said, Marx was the first in a series of important critics of modern republican democracy. Of what use is political equality if economic inequality runs rampant? What are the real boundaries between the public and private citizen? Does liberty of contract, either as employer or purchaser, between an impoverished individual and an emerging global monopoly like Amazon, Apple, or Google have any meaning? Marx remains relevant in how we frame such questions, even if we may reject the answers he might proffer.
Is Marx the thinker responsible for what was done in the regimes of the USSR, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and elsewhere? Most on the Left who revere Marx join Terry Eagleton in immediately disassociating Marx from all subsequent Communist crimes. Eagleton instead raises the crimes of colonialism and capitalism. Should not capitalism be held to account for liquidation of native peoples, imperialism, and a thousand other crimes? Marx never directly advocated for the horrors seen in the Soviet Union, China, Romania, Cambodia, and so on, and has been misinterpreted, coincidentally, every time his followers have achieved power.
The problem with this view is that Marx’s vision of a proletarian dictatorship, unhindered by any of the tartuffery of limited government, left a loaded gun of authoritarianism lying around for anyone to pick up. The line from Marx to Lenin was a lot straighter than many apologists have claimed it to be. Even Eagleton concedes that Marx could have been more sophisticated in his understanding of the nature of power, more like his contemporary Nietzsche and his near contemporary Freud. But this is far too thin a leaf to cover Marx’s intrinsic culpability for the dead that litter the land wherever his followers have risen to power. Marx explicitly endorsed most of the worst aspects of subsequent regimes. In 1850, he advocated communists taking “popular revenge against hated individuals.” Elsewhere, he endorses terrorism itself. If the socialist Russian leader Kerensky, who fell victim to the Bolshevik coup of October 1917, had only read Marx more closely, he would have watched his putative friends more carefully, since Marx advised that a victorious workers party “from the very moment of victory on, distrust must be directed no longer against the conquered reactionary party but against the workers’ former allies.” He endorsed collective farms rather than individual ownership, and the “most rigid centralization” following the example of the bloodiest period of the French Revolution.
While many 19th-century liberals were ambivalent about the French Revolution, admiring its initial goals, actions, and principles but lamenting the Terror that followed, Marx most admired the Terror, the moment where the bourgeoisie were put on the defensive, in Marx’s view, and the proletariat finally approached power. One very plausible interpretation of Marx’s entire worldview is that he longed to reenact the French Revolution on a global scale, with no Napoleon and no retreat from centralized control. Marx’s early life was shaped by his immersion in the study of the French Revolution, and his interpretation of it became increasingly radical as he became a revolutionary. Perhaps this should not be surprising; born in 1817 in a German territory under French control, Marx was closer to the rise of Robespierre in Paris geographically and temporally than an American or Brit born this year is to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Moreover, his entire character seemed to have been one that encouraged doctrinaire absolutism in his relations with other thinkers. He could not tolerate dissent. It is difficult to read his raging, invective-filled letters about a parade of former friends and allies and not conclude he would have been quite at home in Stalin’s purges.
And it is worth noting the extraordinary suffering Marx’s ideas brought to the decolonized nations of the mid-20th century. If decolonization had happened fifty years earlier or later, perhaps hundreds of millions wouldn’t have writhed in poverty and oppression produced by following Marxist economics. If we agree, even in part, with Eagleton that capitalism as practiced by colonial powers was to blame for much suffering in the 18th and 19th centuries, surely we must also reflect on how great was the suffering produced by Third World Marxist regimes in the 20th century.6
So if Marx was neither a successful reformer, nor a prophet, nor an accurate analyst of political sociology as it unfolded before him, how was he as a revolutionary, an activity which, along with economics and journalism, could be described as his occupation for most of his adult life?
Marx by one measure was an unparalleled success. If Jefferson’s words had inspired a similar fire in 1776 as Marx’s did in 1848, nearly half the world would have been republican by 1876. As it happened, by 1950 almost that large portion of the earth’s population lived under Marxist regimes. But in terms of leading a revolution in his own life, Marx was a remarkable failure. His intolerance of dissent, his inability to compromise, and his penchant for personal vendettas made his life a living prophecy of the bitter conflicts on the far Left between various versions of communism and socialism. The internecine wars that have characterized Marxism stem, root and branch, from its founder. Not for him the cooperation of the Founders, without which the United States would not have been possible. If Thomas Paine had had the character of Karl Marx, he would have attacked Christians and slavers in Common Sense rather than making common cause with them against the British.
Marx’s rigid, doctrinaire approach and prickly personality also roiled his leadership of various communist or working men’s associations. They all ended in failure since he could never restrain his jealousy, suspicions, and above all intolerance of any intellectual deviation. He spent more time running dissenters out of organizations than attracting new members, and was content with an ideologically purer, far smaller membership. If the Prussian government, which funded several spies in the exile community, had actually been paying Marx to be a divisive force in the revolutionary movement, they could have scarcely gotten more for their money than the turmoil caused by his unhinged assaults on LaSalle, Bakunin, Grun, Ruge, and many others. Marx wasn’t even very good at propaganda, outside the magnificent Manifesto. As the editor of a radical newspaper while Germany spiraled down into the crisis of 1848, he was unable to capture the support of the lower-middle class or the working class. His rhetoric was entirely too highbrow, at one point mixing Shakespearean and classical allusions that would have required an advanced degree to comprehend on the front page of an aspirationally revolutionary paper.
So a revolutionary mastermind who remained largely obscure to most Westerners as late as 1867 sprang to worldwide relevance for decades—and now has returned to obscurity. Modern American politics finds Marx and Marxism more irrelevant than ever by most measures. Bernie Sanders may be a socialist, but he makes clear that the socialism he admires is a democratic one that combines markets and strong safety nets like the ones in the Nordic countries.
What then, are we to make of the right-wing assaults on their opponents as “cultural” Marxists, in politics or in the academy? Conservatives, by labeling almost every liberal or Democrat a “Marxist,” have removed the sting from the word. Simply expanding the government or ensuring the availability of health insurance or increasing progressive taxation is not “Marxist” in any meaningful sense. Still, allegedly serious people such as Newt Gingrich see Marxism everywhere, particularly as refracted through the obscure Chicago activist Saul Alinsky. Emblematic of how weak the case on the Right is, Alinsky wasn’t even a Marxist, nor has he been particularly influential in the Democratic Party despite Hillary Clinton’s (halfway critical) undergraduate thesis on him.
On campus, the story is much the same. Coverage of Marxism, let alone indoctrination into it, is not widespread on campus today. It is nearly impossible to major in political science in the United States and not read at least a little James Madison, but not reading Marx is easy, at least at the undergraduate level. And when humanities courses bring up Marx, it is typically to get at some of the topics he was closest to being right about: alienation, commodification, and fetishization.
A brief survey of the catalogs of the eight Ivy League schools finds few courses devoted to Marx exclusively, and only a couple that might conceivably be considered “indoctrinations.” Marx is read, quite appropriately, in a diverse range of courses on revolutions, capitalism, socialism, philosophy, and so forth. But the great overlap between the Right and the Marxists at Jacobin Magazine is that they are both under the delusion that Marx is deeply relevant to 21st-century American politics and culture. The difference is that one sees him as a great threat, the other as an important figure, if not a savior. This isn’t true in the broader society, nor is it true even in the universities.
On the 200th anniversary of his birth, Karl Marx is perhaps subsiding to an appropriate level of influence and respect. There is value to the real Marx, more than those who dismiss him simply as evil or wrong would ever know, and yet far less than most leftists imagine. He was a terrible prophet of where the world was headed, a disastrous influence on the world’s political development, and a catastrophe for the decolonizing world. On the positive side of the ledger, Marx exposed the bloody truths at the base of capitalism’s glorious rise. His acolytes, from Foucault and beyond, have produced their share of insights, and of course Eagleton is right that Marxists in America have always been at the anti-racist forefront. Long before America awoke to the necessity of confronting Jim Crow at home or apartheid in South Africa, local and international communists were working to tank those regimes. Marxists have often had the virtue of the right enemies, in Weimar, in the Spanish Civil War, and in Soweto, even if they themselves were relentless enemies of freedom once empowered, almost without exception.
It has been said that Marxism was the “god that failed,” but what does it mean for a god to fail, exactly? By any measure, Marxism is a god that had a good run; the committed atheist Karl Marx succeeded at founding the most popular religion of the 20th century. The territory governed by this religion, and the number of its worshippers, rivaled the stature of the greatest religions in history. Even today, despite all the iconoclastic spasms of 1989-92, there may be more statues of Marx still standing than there are of all but a handful of deities. Thinking of Marxism as a religion—a contribution first proffered in a sustained argument by Eric Voegelin back in the 1930s—certainly makes more sense than thinking of it in the way Marx and Engels wished to, as a science. It offers few testable hypotheses, and those it does have been disproved; to understate the matter, Marxism hasn’t worked in practice. But as a religion, Marxism lacks nothing; it has an eschatology, a genesis story, sacred texts, a morality, a priesthood of sorts, a heaven to be achieved, martyrs, and even devils. True, like all but a few of the tens of thousands of faiths that man has created, Marxism has dwindled to a small sect, and this dwindling will surely continue. Meeting a sincere Marxist will, by the 300th anniversary of Marx’s birth in 2118, be like meeting a Druze, a Zoroastrian, or a follower of Zeus today.
The young Marx famously said, in his aphoristic “Theses on Feuerbach,” that “[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx had unparalleled success at changing the world through his interpretations, but those days seem forever gone. If we judge Marx by the criteria his great friend, financer, and coauthor Engels enunciated at his gravesite that March 17, 1883, the failure of the man’s grand project should be evident to even the most committed Marxist: “His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat . . . .”
Not only has capitalism weathered depressions and global wars; it is now stronger than ever, even as it continually changes, and the Marxist systems set up in opposition to it are consigned to the dustbins of history, largely unmourned in their passing. To the extent that proletarians are not writhing in misery compared to mid-19th-century British factory workers, it is hard to give credit to Marx, since it occurred as a result of wage increases his theories said could not happen.
Capitalism may eventually be replaced by some other economic system, which likely will be hard to distinguish from another phase or kind of capitalism—for the idea that capitalism (like markets) is and has only ever been one thing, such that its supersession will be clear and obvious, is yet another of Marx’s errors. But whatever comes along, and however we label it, it is highly unlikely to be a Marxist system. Like a passenger exiting a dark, rickety Havana elevator after a long bumpy ride, we can all breathe a sigh of relief at that unexpected good fortune.
1It’s not a tour guide myth. See: Frank, Mark, “Indians Help Build Cuba Hotels as Foreign Labor Ban Weakens,” Reuters, July 21, 2016.
2Marx himself found great worth in Hobbes, and credited him as systematizing Bacon’s insights in materialism. Both Engels and Marx saw Hobbes as one of the fathers of materialism.
3While Marx harangued against the sexual immorality of the capitalist class, he wasn’t above impregnating the family’s servant while his own wife was pregnant. Scandal was avoided by forcing the mother to give up the child for adoption and indicting Engels, who actually was quite a roué, as the father. An essay could be written about the hypocrisies of Marx’s personal life, from living well above the proletarian level at Engels’ expense, allegedly out of concern for his daughters’ standing in society, to bourgeois indignation at the very idea that a daughter of his might even briefly work as a servant for another family. Like the apparatchik class in every Marxist state, Marx preached one rule for the masses, another for himself.
4One of Marx’s recent excellent biographers, Jonathan Sperber, makes a telling point against Marx when he notes that Capital’s tracery of capitalism’s growth is dynamic, but its portrait of a suffering English working class is largely static. Which way the arrow of suffering was pointing matters; Marx was confident it was increasing, and he was quite quickly shown to be wrong about that.
5Marx does make a point straight out of Republican campaigns when discussing the Paris Commune’s unitary leadership. How could the committee know who was right for any given job without debate and division of authority? Just like a business, Marx answers. They find the right person for each job, and rapidly replace people if they aren’t working out, so the Paris Commune should have no problems. “Run government like a business” is a banner that may never have been seen at a Marxist rally, but it was a dictum followed closely anyway.
6In one limited sense, Marx is not fully to blame for Marxism in the Third World. In his little-read writings on India, he angrily detailed British atrocities but also commented that Britain was bringing India into the modern capitalist economy, which Marx at that time saw as an inevitable Hegelian stage of development in economics. Marx saw capitalism as developing the material wealth essential to the modern socialist state; countries that were still in the primitive accumulation stage could not easily leapfrog into socialism. If only the decolonizers had waited until capitalism had fully developed before imposing Marxism…