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Is Karl Marx Irrelevant?

Karl Marx was a leading intellectual of the mid- to late- 1800s, but at the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s he is no longer relevant.I just finished re-reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. I am struck by how little I remembered of it. Here are my reactions, in stream-of-consciousness order:

1. Context is crucial for understanding Marx. The Manifesto was written in response to the social situation of Europe in 1847. As a stupid American, I was never taught this history in school. What I know about the mid 1800s is the civil war and the abolition of slavery. Marx makes frequent reference to European social developments in his recent history but I don’t know any of them. Surprisingly, he never once references African-American slavery.  I can find no points of connection with Marx. The public school system has completely failed me.

2. What is the context? We all know that factories in the late 1800s and early 1900s were bad. After all, Samantha’s best friend Nelly had to work in a factory, and she got to see first hand how bad the conditions were. (You can learn a lot from having a daughter who loves American Girl.) But this is not the context of Marx’s manifesto. In fact, in his introduction from the 1872 edition, he comments how much things have changed in 25 years since 1847. He would have written things differently at this point, but did not feel he had the right to alter his own book, which had already become a historical document.

3. Aren’t manifestos supposed to be timeless? Not that any document can be truly timeless, but it would seem that a manifesto of this sort should strive for timelessness. And with this being the quintessential manifesto, I was surprised to realize how completely time-dependent it was. Rather than a statement of general communist principles, the communist manifesto was really an application of the communist principles to a particular point in time, i.e. 1847. This is not to say that he doesn’t cover general principles. He does. But before he does, he responds to the criticisms of communism from his opponents, which presupposes a basic knowledge of communism to begin with. The problem for me, as a reader who grew up in the 80s, is that I associate communism with Lenin, Stalin, Gorbechov, and the downfall of the U.S.S.R. As someone trying to disassociate Marx from a so-called communist system that came after him, he is not giving me very much help.

4. The world situation is much different today. I find myself reading Marx and saying, “Yeah but it’s not like that anymore.” We live in such a different world now, an information age instead of an industrial age. I can’t really even comprehend how Marx’s philosophy would even apply to my world, much less evaluate whether I agree or disagree with him.

5. Was Marx a hero? Today anti-monopoly and labor laws have eliminated many of the grossest abuses of Marx’s day. Employers give paid vacations, and if you earn minimum wage in America you are in the wealthiest 15% of world. (Click here to see what percentile you are in comparison with the rest of the world.) In his introduction to the Bantum Classic edition, Vladimir Pozner argues that these improvements were at least partially in response to the Communist Russian revolution. At times I found myself reading the Manifesto and wondering if we owe Marx a debt of gratitude.

6. Was Marx a villain? Marx did advocate for bloody revolution wherever necessary. With this in mind, I may have a debt of gratitude, but I am placing a call to dispute the charges. Why did Marx feel revolution was okay? Simply because he was convinced that he was right. Yikes! Marx was more extremest than any fundamentalist.

7. Communism is not a political system. The biggest disappointment I have is that I still don’t “get” Communism. I am aware that we are not to equate Communism with Fascism, as we saw exemplified in the U.S.S.R. and every other communist country. Communism is supposed to be opposed to capitalism, not opposed to democracy. In fact, true communism, in its fight for equality, is supposed to be most democratic. In the Manifesto, Marx seems completely unaware that anything but equality could come from a proletariat uprising. History has shown that as soon as people revolt for the cause of equality, wicked leaders will soon rise up and declare themselves to be more equal than everybody else.

What do you think? Does Marx deserve our praise? Our condemnation? Is he even worthy of our attention anymore? Leave a comment below.

Categories: Economics
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