A Bicentennial Reflection: The Effectual Truth of Marxism and Marx

It is now 200 years since Karl Marx was born. Especially as self-described socialists gain attention, it is once again time for a reckoning on the Marxism of Marx. Marx famously spoke in 1848 of a specter haunting Europe—the “specter of Communism.” All the powers in the world, he noted, had entered into a “holy alliance” to “exorcise” the presence of communism from the European and world stage. At the same time, Marx announced the death knell of the political and economic order he unilaterally called “capitalism.” In the guise of a merely “scientific” analysis, he denounced this order for dehumanizing human beings and for leading to the comprehensive “pauperization” of the vast proletarian underbelly of modern industrial society. Today, we are more likely to pronounce the death of Marxism than of the liberal capitalist order that gave rise to Marx’s fear and loathing.

Ingeniously combining pseudo-science and moral indignation, Marx limned a vision of a post-historical and post-political order without contradictions or conflict, one that would achieve unprecedented prosperity and a new horizon marked by “human emancipation.” This would be the realization and triumph of something Marx mysteriously called “species-being.” A prophet of historical inevitability, Marx was also a committed “voluntarist” who welcomed revolutionary eruptions where they occurred. His occasional preference for armed putsches against the “class enemy” is apparent in his enthusiasm for the French revolutionary commune of 1871. It is evident as well in his flirtation with the idea that communist revolution could begin in Russia, even if it didn’t meet all the official Marxist preconditions of industrial development necessary for socialist revolution (on this, see his and Engels’ 1882 preface to the Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto). [1]

Emancipating the World

Economist, prophet of capitalism’s doom and an inevitable and blissful communist future, and revolutionary agitator par excellence, Marx hated the world as it was. His goal was “revolution”—not merely political revolution or “political emancipation,” but a wholesale change in the order of things: the aforementioned “human emancipation.” For the German ideologist, there was no human nature or “natural order of things” that needed to be respected even as one worked to promote humane and salutary change. It is a mistake to apply categories such as “eternal justice” to Marx’s political reflection. As he put it in 1845 in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it.” This comes from the young Marx but it remained a profound sentiment of his until his death in 1883. Marx was not an advocate of reform, however radical. He did not work for “social justice” like a good humanitarian. Instead, he advocated something like “metaphysical rebellion” against the human condition. His humanism—and historicism—were distinctively inhumane and entailed something like a “gnostic” revolt against reality. Eric Voegelin and Alain Besançon have demonstrated as much and they have yet to be refuted convincingly.

For those looking for a humane alternative to the consumer society, and to the excesses of “late capitalism,” Marx does not in any way challenge the established view that the modern project ought to culminate in the thoroughgoing “conquest of nature.” He praised capitalist globalization as its most noble and desirable feature and had no quarrel with a materialist cornucopia as the final goal of human existence (even if the young Marx—the one attractive to the New Left—sometimes prefers “being” to“having”). In his early years, Marx sometimes preferred “authenticity” to material prosperity. But that is not the conclusion of mature Marxism.

Rousseau, for all his other faults, provides a much more humane and convincing alternative to the pathologies of commercial society. His thought retained some real connections with the classical emphasis on self-restraint and the incompatibility of “luxury” with republican virtue. Nor can Marx’s thought provide a philosophical grounding for calls for social equity and the promotion of a genuinely civic common good. Marx was not the first philosopher or political economist to speak of “class struggle.” Aristotle, Madison, and Guizot knew of the phenomenon well before Marx. They, unlike Marx, tried to moderate—and calibrate—class struggle in the name of justice and the common good. These indispensable categories have no place whatsoever in the political economy or political philosophy of Marx. Marx thus cannot provide the intellectual foundations of a decent, moderate, or responsible Left in our democratic societies. To suggest otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking and the worst kind of philosophical and historical revisionism.

Some, like the distinguished Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, think Marx became relevant again, in fact, ever more relevant, after the fall of European communism. On this account, the Marxism of Marx no longer has to carry the noose of Soviet communism around its neck. The Soviet tragedy is thus consigned to the past and questions about Marx’s (partial) responsibility for the tragedies of the 20th century can be safely ignored. Marx thus becomes a cipher or symbol for any and all reservations about capitalist modernity. This leads to absurdities in MacIntyre’s own thought: Marx, the scourge of “the idiocy of village life,” somehow justifies the conservative communitarianism to be found in isolated Icelandic and Irish fishing villages! Marx, a thoroughgoing modernist and cosmopolitan, would be appalled.

Marx himself spoke of the necessary unity of theory and practice and promoted class struggle, violent revolution, and the leap from historical “necessity” to revolutionary “freedom” wherever he could. He did not promote the bloodless academic theory that Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek call “the idea of communism,” even as they write half-ironic encomiums to liberating terror under Lenin, Stalin, and Mao (they seem particularly obsessed with the “glories” of the Cultural Revolution, that Maoist descent into reckless murder, mayhem, and cultural destruction). Marxism has become the last refuge for assorted fools, frauds, and scoundrels, and apologists for totalitarianism in the academy.

Unlike the neo-communists, MacIntyre to his credit takes moral virtue seriously and thus refuses to justify the unjustifiable. His indulgence towards Marx is consequently all the more mysterious, perhaps a residue of the anti-bourgeois ire that inspired him as a young Marxist theorist and activist. Anti-bourgeois ire can unite the Stalinist activist and the communitarian romantic without relativizing or identifying the two stances. None of this is to suggest that we must rest content with a “market ideology” that announces soulless globalization as our fate. Non-Marxists might learn to rediscover the “political” in political economy even if in a distinctly non-Marxist way.

At the same time, MacIntyre’s ahistorical appropriation of Marx evades the necessary task of assigning responsibility for the ravages of Marxist-Leninism in the 20th century.

What Naturally Follows from Revolution

It will not do, as the admirable Polish philosopher Lezsek Kolakowski argued more than once, to rest content with the claim that Marx would have been appalled by the gulag archipelago, or Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist repression, or Stalin’s “cult of personality.” [2] That’s probably true, even if Marx’s powerful invective mocked “formal freedoms” and endorsed the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a necessary step on the way toward that vagary he called “human emancipation” under which the state would somehow mysteriously “wither away.” The great French anti-communist social and political thinker Raymond Aron was fascinated with the “Marxism of Marx” and thought that Marx was in certain moments an economist of real talent and “rich and subtle” insights. But, as Aron argued, it was Marx’s transparently “false ideas” that left their terrible mark on the 20th century: His doctrine of “surplus value” encouraged nationalization of even small businesses and trades as well as the illusion that one could eliminate markets and the “economic realm” altogether (see for example Lenin’s “War Communism”). Both Aron and Kolakowski understood that the search for total unity, “species-being,” or a society without conflict, led inexorably to unprecedented tyranny. Political liberty and the “formal” or “constitutional” freedoms had a dignity that Marx never began truly to appreciate. As Aron argued in the conclusion of his Mémoires (1983), as an “economist-prophet” Marx was a “putative ancestor of Marxist-Leninism,” and thus a “cursed sophist who holds his part of responsibility in the horrors of the twentieth century.” This fact cannot be denied or ignored without turning a willfully blind eye to the darkest realities of the 20th century.

In The Soviet Tragedy (1994), the remarkable Russianist Martin Malia has persuasively demonstrated the essential connection between the Marxism of Marx and the murderous totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. “Maximalist socialism” of the Leninist-Stalinist variety finds powerful support in the “four abolitions” unapologetically put forward in the second part of The Communist Manifesto (1848): the abolition of private property, the abolition of the traditional family, the abolition of religion, and the abolition of countries and nations. How does one abolish these “moral contents of life” without an unprecedented project of tyranny, terror, and centralization? And how does one expect a “revolutionary state,” fully endorsed by Marx, to somehow “wither away”? In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders (1974), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn correctly diagnosed Marx with “sheer ignorance of human nature.” Of course, Marx and Engels wryly suggested that bourgeois capitalism was already “abolishing” these traditional contents of human life and communism would simply consign them more quickly to the grave. But Malia’s central point holds: Communism, from Petrograd to the South China Seas, entailed an unremitting war on what Marx himself called the “material and spiritual elements of life.” The post-communist utopia is a chimera, deeply at odds with human nature, a vision of the future that is literally unthinkable. Leninist-Stalinism is the effectual truth of the Marxism of Marx whether Marx intended it or not. It is at a minimum one legitimate and even predictable outcome of the Marxist project.

Eric Voegelin perhaps went too far when he called Marx an “intellectual swindler” in his polemical and provocative Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1959). In that work, Voegelin accused Marx, with some justification, of refusing to allow certain questions to even be asked. What would Voegelin make of the passage in the second part of the Manifesto where Marx shamelessly declares that “the charges against Communism from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious attention”? Can we call such an unrelieved dogmatist a philosopher open to the truth of things? We have here a portent of the nationalization of the mind that would be the fate of human beings under actual socialism. The essential human questions asked by religion and philosophy were banned by the ideocratic state. Marx bears a heavy responsibility for the closure to the life of reason that marked every communist society in the 20th century. As we see, multiple roads lead from the Marxism of Marx to the tragedies of the 20th century.

Questions Foreclosed

Can we still learn from Marx? Of course we can, despite everything. In a 1984 essay called “Totalitarianism and the Problem of Political Representation,” the French political philosopher Pierre Manent, no Marxist of any stripe, shows how Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” (1843) continues to illuminate the dynamics of a liberal order (we of course have nothing to learn from Marx’s violent invective in that piece against Judaism as a form of “hucksterism”). As Manent shows, Marx brilliantly demonstrates the diminutio capitis that the “contents of life” undergo in a liberal society. The modern representative state exists to protect rights: As Manent paraphrases Marx, “in order for there to be religious freedom, there has to be religion, to have economic liberty,” there must be private property and a market economy.

The liberal capitalist order thus presupposes property, family, religion, knowledge and so forth. But it only fully recognizes individuals with their rights. A conservative or conservative liberal can draw from Marx a most unMarxian conclusion: the goods of life must not be unduly eroded if the liberal order is to have meaningful “contents of life” that it can truly protect and “represent.” Of course, Marx’s path is not that of liberal conservatism: he wants to replace the partial “political emancipation” promoted by liberal capitalism with a wholly untenable “human emancipation.” Marx thus radicalizes and makes even more troubling the spiritual quandary of a liberal society. Marx continues to merit attentive reading leavened by alertness to the dogmatism, revolutionary impatience, and the quest for “metaphysical rebellion” that ultimately make his thought dangerous and untenable. But we do not want to imitate Marx in closing off these questions prematurely. Every student of politics and political philosophy must spend time with Marx, even if only to learn what to avoid.

[1] Robert C. Tucker’s Marx-Engels Reader (W.W. Norton, 1972)remains the most accessible and comprehensive collection of these writings.

[2] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Marxist Roots of Stalinism” (1977), The Great Lie: Classic and Recent Reappraisals of Ideology and Totalitarianism, edited by F. Flagg Taylor IV (ISI Books, 2011), pp. 156-176.