A specter continues to haunt the world, the specter of Karl Marx. Two hundred years ago, on May 5, 1818, the father of 20th-century totalitarian communism, the guidebook-writer of revolutionary mass-murdering dictatorship, and the inspirer of disastrous socialist central planning was born in Trier, Germany.
Looking over the political and economic landscape of what Karl Marx’s ideas wrought, over especially the last one hundred years, one might think that his name and his legacy would be held in the same hatred, contempt, and disgust as Adolf Hitler, the fashioner of German National Socialism (Nazism). But, instead, at a time when we are marking the two hundredth anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, we see his ideas continuing to have their perverse effect, including in the transmuted form of tribalist “identity politics.” (See my article, “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality”.)
Juncker’s office justified his attendance under the rationale that while Marx was a bit controversial, he nonetheless was a “figure that shaped history.”
An opinion piece appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times (May 1, 2018) that admitted that the reality of communism-in-practice may have been a bit rough around the edges; but what still stands out today as Marx’s enduring relevance for our own time is the correctness of, “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.” And that “Marx provided the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.” That is, that we can remake the social and economic order to create a world not subject to such capitalist exploitation.
At the same time, European newspapers highlighted that European Union commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker attended a celebration of Marx’s birthday in Germany at which an 18-foot bronze statue of Marx was unveiled that was donated by China’s Communist Party. Juncker’s office released a statement justifying his attendance under the rationale that while Marx was a bit controversial, he nonetheless was a “figure that shaped history.” The same, of course, could be said about many past tyrants and proselytizers of dictatorship, but few would generate rationalizations for celebrating their birthdays or bigger-than-life statues of them.
In China, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, said in a public address that,
“Today, we commemorate Marx in order to pay tribute to the greatest thinker in the history of mankind and also to declare our firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”
The Financial Times reported that television and other media in China are being bombarded with songs, stories, and documentaries about the profundity and importance of Karl Marx’s ideas and influence, and his especial centrality to the ideology of that communist nation.
Ad hominem is never a substitute for criticizing a person’s ideas rather than the individual. But as historian Paul Johnson pointed out in his bookIntellectuals (1988), it is sometimes useful to know something about the man who has espoused a set of ideas, the content of which, of course, still must be judged on its own merits.
Marx the Man
In this instance, one can only say that Karl Marx was a despicable scoundrel as a human being. Born into a middle-class family in the German Rhineland, Marx’s father was a Prussian civil servant who had converted from Judaism to Christianity to overcome the legal restrictions then in place against governmental employment of Jews. Marx attended the University of Berlin and imbibed the dialectical determinist philosophy of Georg Hegel. Not finishing his degree at Berlin, he finally earned his Ph.D. through a form of correspondence course offered by the University of Jena.
He was racist in his views of Slavs, Asians, and Africans and indulged in anti-Semitic rhetoric.
He spent a good part of his younger life erratically earning a living as a writer and editor of short-lived newspapers and journals. Moving to Paris in 1843, he soon began his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Frederick Engels, a wealthy German textile manufacturer and radical socialist, which resulted in their most famous joint work, The Communist Manifesto (1848).
Marx and his family settled in London in 1849, and he continued to live there until his death on March 14, 1883, at the age of 64. It was during those years that Marx researched and published the first volume of his treatise on Capital (1867), the additional two volumes of which were edited and published posthumously by Engels. From his home in England, Marx devoted a good part of his energy to radical socialist politics on the European continent that included intrigues and conflicts with many other prominent socialists of that time.
A petty, vindictive and vengeful man, Karl Marx cheated on his wife with the family housekeeper, fathered an illegitimate child with her, and refused to recognize the existence of this son. His personal habits and hygiene were deplorable. Some of his articles as a correspondent for theNew York Herald Tribune were plagiarized, having been written by Engels but with his own name on them. He would backstab and badmouth other members of the socialist movement to further his own political purposes and would attempt to undermine any influence by them that challenged his own attempt to direct the ideas and policies of various European socialist groups. He was racist in his views of Slavs, Asians, and Africans and indulged in anti-Semitic rhetoric. In other words, Karl Marx was an altogether a disgusting, cruel, and power-lusting person. (See my article, “Karl Marx: The Man Behind the Communist Revolution”.)