May 5 is the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. Seldom have the ideas of one person wreaked such havoc. And yet, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, he remains idolized and influential.
Marx’s theory of Communism caused revolutions, wars, and gulags, and was responsible for the death of some 100 million human beings. In the two centuries since his birth in 1818, Marxist ideology controlled entire nations–the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam. And yet, just as suddenly, the European versions collapsed, though the Asian versions persist, usually with non-Marxist reforms.
Nevertheless, liberals love Marx. The New York Times has published an effusive tribute to the inventor of Communism by Jason Barker, a philosophy professor at a university in South Korea (!). From Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!:
Educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis — that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit — is correct. Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever. . . .
The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.
We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.
I grew up during the Cold War, and at that time our schools, the press, the popular culture, and both political parties saw Communism as an “existential threat.” There was a clear divide between the free democracies of America and its allies and Communism: individualism vs. the collective; freedom vs. totalitarianism; free market economics vs. socialism; human rights vs. state control; religious liberty vs. mandated atheism.Yes, the Cold War had its propaganda and America’s faults may have been covered over. But those distinctions were real. Communist propaganda would argue for the superiority of collectivism, totalitarianism, socialism, state control, and atheism. We had to choose what kind of society we wanted, and we had to defend it. In the United States, Democrats and Republicans agreed in their anti-Communism.
But once the side of democracy and freedom won the Cold War, those lines have blurred. Marxism, proven a failure as a political and economic system, has mutated into post-Marxism.
Instead of interpreting and critiquing everything in terms of the oppression and struggle between economic classes, as Marx did, the post-Marxists interpret and critique everything in terms of the oppression and struggle between other groups: men oppress women; whites oppress blacks; heterosexuals oppress homosexuals; humans oppress animals, etc., etc.
Now Marx would surely not countenance post-Marxism. He would surely denounce these cultivations of victimhood as bourgeois dilettantism, with middle class academics and affluent professionals playing at radicalism. He would note how these so-called radicals tend to ignore and look down upon working people, who, perversely, he would think, have become the base of reactionaries.
These groups, he would say, have no actual revolutionary potential. Are women going to overthrow men by a violent revolution, as his proletariat did with the middle class in Russia, China, and other Communist bastions? Will gays liquidate heterosexuals? Will transexuals put natural-gendered people in gulags? Will animals set up a society in which humans are subjugated?
And yet, the post-Marxists are revolutionary nonetheless. They are seeking to revolutionize not the state, nor the economy, but the culture.
And in this, they have proven remarkably successful. Unlike the Cold War opposition to Marxism, those whom the post-Marxists were trying to overthrow have mostly surrendered without a fight.
See also Ben Shapiro’s refutation of the New York Times article, which concludes:
No, Marx wasn’t right. But the Left will never let him go, because he offers the only true alternative to the religious view of human nature — the view of man that says he is not a blank slate, not an angel waiting for redemption, but a flawed creature capable of great things. To achieve those great things is hard work. To change ourselves on an individual level is hard work. To spout about the evils of society — that’s certainly easy enough.
Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons