The unexpected immortality of Karl Marx
Text contributed for the exhibition "Marx und der Kapitalismus" currently held at the German Historical Museum in Berlin (10.II to 21.VIII)
China Daily in its January 16, 2021 issue reports:
Just over a century ago in 1920, Chen Wangdao, the late Chinese scholar and educator, completed China’s first translation of The Communist Manifesto…Today, 101 years later, a team of 29 members from the Communist Party of China are following in his footsteps to share Marxist theories with the public through an exhibition centered on The Communist Manifesto.
On March 17, 1883 when Karl Marx was buried at the Highgate cemetery in London only eleven persons were present at his funeral.
What separates these three events: in 1883, 1920 and 2021?
Life after death. There is probably no one in recent intellectual history whose fortunes during lifetime and the influence after the death have been so starkly different as Karl Marx’s. The only similar examples in history are Socrates and Jesus. In both cases they would not have become worldwide intellectual and religious leaders had it not been for people who propagated their thought, namely Plato, and Saul (later Apostle Paul). In the case of Marx, that role was played by Friedrich Engels. This was the first of the three remarkable and improbable events that made a London recluse the most influential global thinker of the past half-millennium.
The first event: had there been no Engels. When Karl Marx died in 1883, he was the coauthor of The Communist Manifesto, a number of political and social short studies, newspaper articles, and a thick but not well-known or much read, nor much translated book called Capital (volume 1). It was published 16 years before his death and during the intervening years he wrote a lot but published little. Toward the end of his life, he even wrote little. Similarly unpublished and messy were hundreds of pages of his manuscripts from the late 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Marx was known among the rather small circle of worker-activists, and German, French, Austrian, and increasingly Spanish and Russian social-democrats. Had not Engels spent more than a decade putting Marx’s papers in order and producing, out of dispersed notes, two additional volumes of Das Capital, Marx’s fame would have ended at the point where it was in 1883. It would have been rather minimal.
Thanks to Engels’ selfless work and dedication (and Engels’ own importance in German social-democracy), Marx’s importance grew. Social-democrats became the largest party in Germany and this carried Marx’s influence forward. The first decade of the 20th century saw increasing influence of Marxist thought, so much so that Leszek Kolakowski in his monumental Main currents of Marxism rightly calls it “the golden age”. It was indeed the golden age of Marxist thought in terms of the caliber of people who wrote in the Marxist vein, but not in terms of global influence. For Marx’s thought made no inroads into the Angle-Saxon world (the first English translation of Das Kapital—which is still, strangely, referred to by its German title) was in 1887, that is. twenty years after its original publication), and in Southern Europe, including France, Marx was eclipsed by anarchists and by “petty bourgeois socialists”. And almost no one knew of him beyond European social-democracy and perhaps a few Russian government spies who kept a watchful eye on St. Peterburg revolutionaries.
This is where things would have ended had there not been the Great War. It is not impossible to think that Marx’s influence would have steadily gone down as the social-democrats in Germany moved toward reformism and “revisionism”. His picture would have probably been displayed among the historical “maîtres à penser” of the German social-democracy but not much of his influence would have remained, whether in policy or in social sciences.
But then the October Revolution and Lenin came (the second event), totally transforming the scene. Not only because he was “allotted” the glory, unique among social scientists, to be single-handedly ideologically responsible for an epoch-making change in one big country and therefore in world history, but because socialism, due to its worldwide appeal, “catapulted” Marx’s thought and fame. His thinking became de rigueur in most of Europe, whether among intellectuals, political activists, labor leaders or ordinary workers. Evening schools were organized by trade unionists to study his writings; political leaders of Communist parties planned their moves and explained them with reference to the hitherto little known Marx’s historical writings.
Then as the Comintern began to abandon its Eurocentrism and to get engaged into anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World, Marx’s influence expanded to the areas no one could have predicted it would (the third event). This decisive turn away from Eurocentrism and towards the Third World, including, of momentous importance, to China, transformed Marx from a German and European thinker into a global figure. He became the ideological mentor of the new movements for social revolution and national liberation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Quite extraordinarily, the new Catholic Liberation theology found commonalities with the Young Marx, the same one who began his philosophical career with a critical study of religion. Whether political leaders stuck to his precepts or abandoned them (as Mao did by putting the peasantry rather than the workers in the role of the revolutionary class), Marx influenced them—and it is in the reference to him that they explained their policies. Thanks to Trotsky and Stalin in Russia to the left-wing republicans in Spain, the popular front in France, Mao in China, Ho Shi Minh in Vietnam, Tito in Yugoslavia, Castro in Cuba, Agostino Neto in Angola, Nkrumah in Ghana, Mandela in South Africa, Marx became a global “influencer”. Never had a modern-era social scientist had such a global reach. The ability to appeal to people from around the world living under very different conditions from those about which he wrote, and, at the same time, to keep the essence of ideology intact was Marx’s, like all great religions’, secret to success. Who could have imagined that two bearded 19th century German exiles would on special occasions adorn the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing?
Not only did Marx like no other social scientist achieve such geographically broad influence, but his influence cut across class and professional lines. His writings, many for the first time published one hundred years after having been written, spread his influence to the academy; they influenced both those who opposed him and those who extolled him. That influence went from elementary Marxism that was taught to high-school students to sophisticated philosophical treatises or “analytical Marxism “ in economics. The publication of Marx’s manuscripts from 1844-46, brought the unknown young Marx and that moved the discussion to an even higher plane: there was now a philosophical battle between the young and the classical Marx. Marx’s collected works, and notes, and letters, which now cover several hundred volumes, are still in the process of being published—and every new volume seemingly influences our understanding of something else that he wrote and that was previously published.
Responsibility. But with the success goes responsibility. As communism’s crimes became better known, and gradually increasingly laid at Marx’s door, and as communist regimes sputtered and their mournful and poorly educated ideologues regurgitated predictable phrases, Marx’s thought suffered an eclipse. And the question was asked: were Marx’s ideas, his “spirit”, responsible for many of the atrocities committed by the regimes that ruled in his name—perhaps his “ghosts”? A facile answer would be to say that ideologues are not to be held responsible for the implementation of their ideas especially because these ideas are seldom clear-cut and can be interpreted and implemented in many different ways. However that answer is unconvincing. The ideas that were implemented in the 1920s Soviet Union, and after the Second World War in most of Eastern Europe and China were very much the ideas that Marx expressed in his writings even if his discussion of the post-capitalist society was scarce. But the ideas of a society deciding through its “associated producers” what to produce and how; the ideas of the end of commodity production, and the end of private search for profit were all in Marx. And they were applied: first the nationalization of large scale enterprises, then the more thoroughgoing nationalizations and ban of most private-sector activities, and finally the introduction of central planning and collectivization of agriculture. The influence did not end: the Chinese government’s decision in the early 1980s concerning how far to allow the growth of the private sector was justified by Marx’s true or apocryphal statement that workers’ exploitation was acceptable if the total number of employees hired by a capitalist does not exceed seven. (This particular classification is still present in Chinese official statistics that distinguish between owners of private businesses (hiring more than 7 persons) and owners of individual businesses.)
Even the violence which often accompanied communist revolutions or policies cannot be simply ascribed to historical contingencies or the non-democratic past of the countries that implemented Marxist ideology. Marx in his historical writings (“The class struggles in France”, “The 18th Brumaire…”) and newspaper articles was clearly willing to countenance revolutionary violence. He was supportive of the 1848 Revolutions, Blanquist conspiratorial politics, the Paris Commune, the Unionist side in the American Civil War, even of a pan-European conflict so long as it, directly or indirectly, promoted social revolution. Even if Marx’s idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat might have been misunderstood to mean a political form of the regime rather than the essential social nature of the system and thus led to the dictatorships in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries his defense of workers’ regimes of exception was present throughout his lifetime.
His was not exactly the language of reformism, conciliation, and “the long march through the institutions”:
The socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the inevitable transit point to the abolition of all class differences generally, to the abolition of all productive relations on which they rest, to the abolition of all social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionalizing of all the ideas that result from these social connections. (Class struggles in France, Chapter III).
Did we thus establish his responsibility and should we stop there? Not really. Because it is wrong to draw a direct line, or to entirely reject, an ideology because of its real-world consequences. This is most obvious for religions which have led to countless wars. But this is also the case with more recent ideological movements. They all had their own “spirits” and “ghosts”. The ideas of the French Revolution of liberty, equality, and fraternity are not to be dismissed because that revolution quickly degenerated into reign of terror. The ideas of the European 19th century liberalism were often intertwined with colonization and numerous atrocities and even genocides committed over non-European peoples. The American Revolution’s statement about the equality of all persons went together with the support for perhaps the most exploitative system of slavery that had ever existed. It would not be right to reject the ideologies that underpin the French Revolution, European liberalism, and American independence because in their in real-life incarnations they often produced the effects falling short of, or even directly contrary to, what their ideologues claimed or desired. Marx’s ideas have indeed to be held responsible as much as the ideas of other economists and political scientists but that responsibility cannot obliterate the importance of his core ideas of human progress, equity, and revolution.
The rebel, the critic, and the analyst. There are two features of Marx’s that will, guarantee his influence on future generations because they appeal to the two parts of human nature—emotions and the intellect. The first is rebellion or revolution in its most primordial meaning of dramatic and thoroughgoing change. This is something that will continue to distinguish Marx from other thinkers however radical, in some spheres, they might have been: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Georg Friedrich Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson. This irreducible revolutionary core in Marx will always appeal to people who want to change the existing order of things; he will always inspire malcontents, but also dreamers, the strivers for a better society. No amount of “photo-shopping” can transform the revolutionary Marx into a law-abiding, cautious and moderate left-wing politician of today. Unlike many revolutionary leaders, Marx was not “cooptable” by the bourgeois society: his fleeting success after the publication of Capital, and the wining-and-dining temporarily offered by Le tout Berlin did not change an iota in his behavior and opinions. He remained impervious to bourgeois flattery.
Marx’s influence as a thinker, appealing to our intellect, is inextricably linked with capitalism. So long as capitalism exists, Marx will be read as its most astute analyst. He identified two crucial and historically original features of capitalism: insatiable need for gain (“Accumulate, accumulate, this is Moses and all the prophets”), and the need for perpetual expansion to new territories or areas of production, which itself derives from the search for gain. If capitalism ceases to exist, however, Marx will be read as its most prescient critic. So whether we believe that in another 200 years, capitalism will be with us or not, we can be sure that Marx will.
NB. I am grateful for comments to Kemal Derviş and John Roemer.
This is a nice overview; thanks for writing it. I think it's important to take the next step and be as precise as possible about *why* governments claiming fealty to Marx have tended toward extreme authoritarianism. In my view, it's primarily because Marx's system assigns "objective" interests to workers, interests given by his analysis of their place in the capitalist mode of production. If there is a clash between what workers subjectively believe and what the analysis says they should believe, the latter takes precedence. This is dangerous!
Also, like most other classic socialist thinkers (and before this the charismatic leaders of medieval messianic movements), Marx simply assumed a unity of interests within society once the force of class was removed: from class to universal interest. But this denies the need for a genuine politics within socialism; there can only be conflict between the universal interest promulgated by the revolution and all the partial or false interests outside it. Even after all these decades, we still await a conception of socialism that embraces disunity of interests and true political pluralism.
Excellent piece with lots of important insights. I would add to the lasting impact of Marx "if capitalism persists", his recognition that labor markets generally failed as efficient allocators of resources because they were subject to imperfect or asymmetric information. This is now a standard part of the economics of information, but its origin in Marx's distinction between "labor" and "labor power" is often ignored. This important insight into how capitalism worked led him to note that the market economy stopped at the door of the factory. Inside was a less democratic and more complex world than what neoclassicals envisioned, and we now teach to our undergraduates. Unless technology somehow removes the asymmetry of information in the exchange of labor, Marx's critique of capitalism will remain relevant.