Defining Ideas

At 200, Marx Is Still Wrong

Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Portrait of Karl Marx

Two hundred years ago this month, Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany, a small town in the western part of the country. To celebrate his bicentennial, the People’s Republic of China donated a larger-than-life statue of the founder of Communism to the city of his birth, which the Trier City Council voted to accept. It goes without saying that this memorialization was controversial, not only because of the devastation caused throughout the world during the twentieth century in the name of Marxism, but also because of the still living memory of Communist rule in East Germany. Henceforth when one thinks of Trier, one should remember Tiananmen Square.

As if the China connection were not sufficiently provocative, the Marx commemoration in Trier included a panegyric delivered in the town’s cathedral by none other than Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and effective head of the European Union. Juncker is hardly known as a deep philosophical thinker and his efforts to present Marx as a “philosopher who thought into the future” were the insipid ramblings of a career Eurocrat. But his very presence at the event became a scandal because he casually dismissed the letters of protest he admitted having received from concerned members of the public in central and eastern Europe—the territories which had suffered most under Communist rule and where the memory of that dictatorship is still very much alive.

In Juncker’s telling, Marx was a mild social democrat. But Juncker failed to explore the implications of what was done in Marx’s name. What was it in Marx’s writings that lent itself to the interpretations—or misinterpretations, according to Juncker—of his Stalinist followers?  There is of course a legitimate tension between judging a work—Marx’s work—on its own merits and judging it based on its impact. But Juncker cannot praise Marx for “thinking into the future” while simultaneously trying to insulate Marx from his own legacy.

As we approach the thirty-year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is astonishing that Marx continues to be a popular figure, and not just among people like Juncker. Of course, there are the dogmatists in the few remaining Communist countries  such as China andCuba,  who continue to cling onto his sclerotic ideas. But there are also, closer to home, intellectuals and academics who purvey versions of Marxism in the humanities departments of many college campuses. Meanwhile outside of the universities, popularized versions of Marx’s ideas circulate among left-wing populists, like those of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. 

All the more reason to review what was rotten about Marx’s ideas—ideas that gave rise to brutal dictatorships and the killing machines of the gulags.  

If you read nearly any passage in Marx’s oeuvre, it’s hard not to be struck by his sense of absolute certainty. He pronounces statements in an apodictic manner, laying claim to an unquestionable sense of truth, with no opportunity to doubt. He is therefore always on the attack as he decimates opponents with unyielding polemic—and he was a master of polemical style, to be sure. Meanwhile there is no self-reflection, no interrogation of his own views, and no sense that he might possibly be wrong.  

Marx channels a voice of infallibility, making sweeping claims with no margin of error and no exploration of evidence: “All history is the history of class struggle ” begins the Communist Manifesto, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. All history? Was there really nothing else than conflicts between different economic groups? For Marx, apparently, there was never any other dimension of human experience worthy of independent consideration: no history of technology, of ideas, of culture, or faith. He comes to this one-dimensional schema by deflating the philosophy of history he had found in his teacher, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. In place of Hegelian complexity, he offered simplistic claims to predict the future in the form of “developmental laws of capitalism.”

Perhaps the kindest judgment on Marx is that he was just one more economist who thought he could predict the future. His delusion about his own predictive capacities is what made Marx so distasteful to a thinker like Friedrich von Hayek, who recognized that humans can get things wrong, so best not to endow any single human with too much power, and certainly not the government. Not so Marx, who claimed direct access to incontrovertible insights into the logic of history. For that reason he could conclude his Manifesto with a series of crushing verdicts on competing radical movements, denounced and condemned, without a shadow of doubt. These concluding diatribes against other socialist currents that dared to differ from Marx’s Communism are perhaps the most symptomatic elements of his work, setting up a pattern of defaming one’s opponents, especially those closest to him. Marx’s Bolshevik heirs would transform  that confidence in condemnation into rationale to send political competitors to their deaths. On the long list of victims of Marxism, companions on the left figured prominently.

While we might associate Marx with politics, in fact he lacked any real appreciation for a political sphere in which one would interact productively with advocates of varying programs.  While for others, politics represents a realm of compromise and negotiation, for Marx, it was really the pursuit of power and the obligation to command. He described the state simply as “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie,” meaning that politics was secondary to the economy. Moreover he promised to abolish the state, and therefore politics, once Communism would eliminate class difference—or so the story went, as the ultimate outcome of Communism would be a libertarian utopia of statelessness. 

Nothing, however, would be further from the truth. In practice, what Communism provided for was the development of a nomenklatura, a new class elite which talked the egalitarian talk while claiming for itself the privilege of dictators. The Communist cadre always knew better than the unenlightened populace, and therefore the cadre would claim the power to impose their views and programs on the rest of society. The real political legacy of Marxism was not the abolition of the state but, on the contrary, the expansion of the state over society, and the elevation of a Marxist elite over the populace. No wonder the East Germans calling for the end of their Communist government in November 1989 chanted, “We are the people,” a people which the Communists, when all is said and done, simply deplored. Marxism was not about achieving an egalitarian society: it was the vehicle through which party activists and thugs could pursue their own will to power. (For this reason, the young radical Max Eastman described the Communist revolutionaries in Russia as “Nietzschean.”)

The Marxist pursuit of power also meant denouncing all religion, which Marx described as an opiate, a drug intended to lull its consumers into passivity and false consciousness, so as to keep them from the truth (his truth). Because Marxism emphasized labor and the primacy of human experience, it could appeal to various twentieth-century philosophers, existentialists among others, who emphasized the problem of alienation. Yet Marxism, which treated all thought in a reductionist manner as an expression of economy, could never shake its own anti-intellectual legacy, famously expressed in Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” 

Discussion of the meaning of life—interpreting the world—turn out to be of negligible import for Marxists, easily dismissed as only “epiphenomenal.” Marx’s alternative to reflective thought was changing the world, but without any room for the sort of ethical guidance that philosophical thinking might offer: change at all costs, change with no limits. The result was a modernizing fantasy of thorough-going transformation with scant attention to the human costs. As Hannah Arendt showed a century later in her Origins of Totalitarianism, this would lead to systematic violence in “experiments” to fashion a “new man,” no matter how much suffering would ensue. Ultimately, Marx had offered a false alternative: philosophical thinking or changing the world. In fact, what defines the human condition is the ability to engage in both, deep thinking and intentional action, and indeed we should prefer action to be guided by thinking, just as thinking should be informed by the experience of prior action.

The claim of infallibility, the will to political power, and the dismissal of ethical thought: such was the legacy that Karl Marx bequeathed to the Communist movement that once ruled half the world. President Juncker, in his celebration of Marx, recalled none of this, revealing himself to be just one more of Marx’s defenders who still insist on the fantasy of a good Marx motivated by sympathy for the poverty of the workers during the industrial revolution.

But Marx was hardly the only thinker to write about nineteenth century social conditions, and he was surely not the most interesting. A page of Dickens is worth a volume of Das Kapital.  Wherever Marxism dominated working class movements—by suppressing competing reform movements or manipulating unions—blue collar workers fared worse. Had Marx not been appropriated as the ideological figurehead of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 in order to justify the dictatorship in Russia, he would be barely remembered today. (A Google N-gram search shows that “Marxism” only takes off as a term after Lenin came to power.) Instead, he has become the symbol of decades of terror.

For those who want to talk about Marx, to erect statues in his memory or to defend him as a philosopher, it is high time to discover some intellectual integrity and face up to the crimes committed in his name. It is wrong to say, as one commonly hears in some circles, that his program of Communism was a good idea, but poorly implemented. On the contrary, it was a bad idea from the start and the brutality that always accompanied it was a consequence of its core character.