Happy birthday, Dr Marx!

As you’re probably already aware if you’ve been following the media this week, Karl Marx was born in the (then Prussian) Rhineland two hundred years ago today. There’s already been a lot written to mark the occasion, most of it by partisans who see him as either hero or villain. I think he was neither, so let me try to explain why.

The first thing to say about Marx is that he is well worth reading. He was a deep and important thinker, and although he wrote some impenetrable prose, he also wrote much that is eminently readable – the Theses on Feuerbach are justly famous for their pithiness, and every journalist envies the writer of the opening lines of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

But it’s not unusual for public figures to be driven to the tasks for which they are least suited (think, for example, of Kevin Rudd’s ambition to be an orator). The same impulse pushed Marx, potent as a revolutionary pamphleteer and humanistic philosopher, to instead spend most of the latter part of his career as an economist. His economics has not aged well.

The later success of Marxist and pseudo-Marxist politics has thrown a spotlight on the socialist movements of the mid-nineteenth century, but at the time they received little outside attention. Marx spent much of his time in obscure sectarian disputes rather than being any sort of leader of public debate. Writing half a century ago, Northcote Parkinson drew attention to Marx’s isolation: “He never encountered the criticism of men whose experience he was bound to respect.”

He was also an unemployed professor, a scholar in the German tradition with a first-rate brain, a vast depth of learning and considerable obscurity of thought. Of his intellect and scholarship there can be no doubt at all. He knew many languages and had read widely in many subjects. A very learned man indeed, he was admirably fitted for the life of a German university. … There is a sense, of course, in which a professor lives apart from the world. But his duties, even in the mid-nineteenth century, involved some contact with other people. The most professorial of German professors would have examinations to set and appointments to keep. Sessions of Senate and Faculty might give him scope for eloquence or intrigue, and he would find for himself the need to compromise, concede and persuade. Howbeit painfully and slowly, the professor comes to know something of administration and finance. But this was the practical knowledge which Marx was denied. … Retaining and increasing all his professional learning, he became more purely theoretical than even professors are allowed to be. Of the difficulties of organizing human society he knew practically nothing.

Marx’s philosophical work is still important today – historical materialism has proved itself to be a fertile source of ideas. Much of his journalism is still lively, and even his economics has nuggets of interest. But his lasting influence has come not from any of these things, but from his status as a prophet of revolution.

Of the many tribute pieces published in the last few days, I would particularly pick out this one by David McMullen in Overland. I’m less convinced than McMullen is of Marx’s relevance for our near future, but he understands the vital point that Communism as it played out in the twentieth century was deeply un-Marxist. Marx had written the Communist Manifesto, but the Communist movement that Lenin created was quite different to anything Marx had envisaged. As McMullen says:

Real Marxists had every reason to be delighted when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. We still have relics: North Korea hangs on by terrorising its population. China and Vietnam have adapted by dropping much of the empty and dysfunctional socialist shell while retaining the reins of political power. Cuba now appears to be attempting a similar adaptation in an effort to get out of its economic mess. We can only wish the worst for these police states. I am sure that Marx would be of a similar mind.

It’s the sad fate of prophets to be ill served by their disciples; Marx famously said that he was not a Marxist. (Ayn Rand, for one, sympathised with him.) When, in the wake of Lenin’s putsch, the world socialist movement split between Social Democrats and Communists, it was the latter who succeeded in claiming Marx for themselves.

And at one level that made sense: he was, after all, a professional revolutionary. He cannot avoid all blame for what Lenin and his successors did. But he was also a humanist, and his work shows little trace of a love of violence for its own sake. Late in his life he showed increasing confidence in the ability of the working class in developed democracies to seize power by peaceful means. To use his name to justify the barbarism of Stalinism is monstrous.

Above all Marx was a man of his time. It is engaging but ultimately fruitless to consider how he would have reacted to the new intellectual discoveries and changed circumstances of the 135 years since his death. But he was an original and intelligent thinker: it’s a fair bet he would have come up with something interesting.


5 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Dr Marx!

  1. Thanks for this Charles. It was a small bite of a huge topic but worth reading for all that. I am particularly interested in the notion of the working class seizing control. With western democracies beginning to fade we need to look hard at whether, or, more optimistically, how the popular franchise will continue in the medium term. Given a strict interpretation of democracy and socialism, I would argue that neither have ever really been put in practice. This argument has been made ad nauseium for socialism but while we assume that democracy in the west is as good as it get, and we somehow simultaneously assume that it can only get better, true democracy with mass decision making has never really been tried. In would be immensely difficult but we now have the means with digital communications.
    What if authority and power will always tend to flow back to the hands of a minority? What if concentrated wealth, coercion and the use of force will always over come over any attempts at power sharing in the end? I don’t think it is idealistic to believe that society can organise itself in a manner that is mostly fair and just in operation and outcomes. The hard part is finding a system that works.
    I don’t know why this article didn’t get top billing like the non-think piece from the IPA and Helen Razer’s hyperbole filled effort (one I quite liked, though). And its weird that both those articles had pages of comments while I am the only one here. Maybe people prefer a good rant to something that makes them think.


    1. Thanks, campidg, that’s very kind of you. I think we could do a lot more with both democracy and the market; in both cases we complain about their failings, but in fact most of the trouble comes from failing to use them as much as we could.


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