Two hundred years after he was born, Karl Marx is still causing controversy. The donation of a statue by the Peoples Republic of China to commemorate the anniversary of his birth Saturday in the small German city of Trier has rightly provoked strong opposition from those who recall the suffering that communist regimes inflicted on their populations.
And yet, close to 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire, there are those who still idealize Marx and Marxism — not only in the few remaining self-styled communist countries but, more disturbingly, among some privileged intellectuals in the West.
What these admirers have forgotten, or glossed over, is that Marxist doctrine led to brutal dictatorships and the killing machines of the gulags. All the more reason to review what was so rotten about it.
Read nearly any passage in the German philosophers voluminous and long-winded oeuvre and one is struck by his sense of absolute certainty. He lays claim to truth and leaves no room for doubt. He decimates opponents with unyielding polemic and consistently refuses to reflect on his own views. The paragon of infallibility, he makes sweeping claims with no margin of error and no exploration of evidence.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks at the Basilica of Constantine in Trier, ahead of the opening of major exhibitions on Karl Marx | Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images
“All history is the history of class struggle,” his “Communist Manifesto” begins. All? For Marx, there is no other dimension to human experience worthy of independent consideration: No history of technology, of ideas, of culture or faith. He distorts the complexity of German idealist philosophy into simplistic claims to predict the future in the form of his “developmental laws of capitalism.” His delusion about his capacity to predict is what made Marx anathema to thinkers like Friedrich von Hayek, who recognized the inescapable fallibility in human judgment.
Not so Marx, who claimed direct access to Truth, with a capital T, and concluded his manifesto with a series of crushing verdicts on competing radical movements, denounced and condemned, without a shadow of doubt. Marxs Bolshevik heirs would later use that confidence in condemnation as grounds to send political opponents to their deaths. Among the long list of victims of Marxism, his competitors on the left figure prominently.
Because of his unquestioning self-assuredness, Marx had a very brittle sense of politics. What is to others a realm of compromise and negotiation is, for him, the obligation to command. He saw the state simply as “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie,” which he promised to abolish once communism eliminated class difference — or so the story went.
In practice, communism allowed the development of a nomenklatura, a new class elite that talked the egalitarian talk while it claimed for itself the privilege of dictators. The real political legacy of Marxism is hardly 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.” The communists found the people simply deplorable.
Marxism was not about achieving an egalitarian society: It was the vehicle by which party activists and thugs could pursue their own will to power. (Its the reason why the young radical Max Eastman described Russias communist revolutionaries as “Nietzschean.”)
The Marx statue, under wraps prior to its unveiling in Trier | Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images
The Marxist pursuit of power also meant denouncing all religion, which it denigrated as an opiate and false consciousness. He similarly rejected philosophy, as in his famous phrase: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.” Discussions on the meaning of life — interpreting the world — therefore turn out to be of negligible import for Marxists and easily dismissed. Marx preferred “changing the world” over reflective thought, but did not leave room for the sort of ethical guidance philosophical thinking might offer. He wanted change at all costs, change with no limits, change immune to ethical consideration.
The result was a modernizing fantasy of thorough transformation with scant attention to human costs. As Hannah Arendt showed a century later in her “Origins of Totalitarianism,” communism led to a systematic violence in “experiments” to fashion a “new man,” no matter the suffering caused.
Claims of infallibility, the pursuit of political power, and a denigration of ethical thought: such was the legacy Marx bequeathed to the communist movement that once ruled half the world. But Marxs defenders still insist on the fantasy of a “good” Marx motivated by sympathy for the poverty of the workers during the industrial revolution.
Yet Marx was hardly the only thinker to write about the social conditions of the 19th century, 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 decades of terror and dictatorship in Russia, he would barely be remembered.
Russell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas professor in the humanities at Stanford University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.