Karl Marx, who may have done more than any single intellectual to influence history, turned 200 years old Saturday, a birthday that caused predictably polarized responses. Left-wing filmmaker and activist Michael Moore tweeted a “happy birthday” message, asserting that Marx proved right about most things, citing as evidence polls that show most young Americans prefer socialism to capitalism. USA Today columnist James Bovard, a libertarian, wrote that Marx’s birthday should not be celebrated because his ideas inspired regimes that “produced the greatest ideological carnage in human history.”
The debate about Marx boils down to two essential questions: Is it fair to blame Marx for the way his ideas have been applied, and are those ideas still relevant?
As an erstwhile refugee from communism — I was born in the Soviet Union and lived there until age 16 — I admit I have a built-in allergy to Marxism. Is this an unfair bias? Many people, including some Soviet dissidents, have argued that the Soviet regime was built on a distortion or misunderstanding of Marxist philosophy. I’m open to the possibility; but the fact is that the past hundred years have seen many attempts to build a society based on Marxist ideas. Every one of them has led to economic misery and repression, most recently in Venezuela. Many have resulted in mass killing, with an overall death toll of about 100 million. That’s quite a misunderstanding.
It is true that one cannot find a prescription for the Soviet gulag or the Cambodian killing fields in Marx’s writings. But he did express approval of “revolutionary terror.”
Marx’s defenders, such as philosophy professor and writer Jason Barker, who penned a defense of Marx for The New York Times op-ed page, argue that Marx’s strength lies not in prescriptions, but in his critique of capitalism. To some, recent developments, such as growing economic inequality and the declining fortunes of the middle class in Western capitalist democracies, show the Marxist critique, which predicted impoverishment of the working masses, was correct after all.
But one also can point to many trends that contradict this notion, from the past half-century’s massive strides in reducing global poverty to the flourishing of entrepreneurship and self-employment in America. The role of intellectual capital in the high-tech age undercuts the fundamental Marxist belief that capitalism is built on the exploitation of physical labor. And people still flee from communist or quasi-communist regimes to capitalist democracies, not vice versa.
Barker asserts that the continued relevance of Marx is shown by the extension of his ideas of class conflict to the contemporary politics of race and gender and to liberation movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. But arguably, this claim actually shows the pernicious effects of Marxism. Both movements unquestionably express valid grievances: police brutality that disproportionately affects African-Americans, sexual harassment and violence that disproportionately affect women. Yet in both cases, a Marxist lens that substitutes race or gender for class and reduces these problems to the “class struggle” of black versus white or women versus men often turns out to be the worst possible approach. It promotes polarization, offers deceptively simple answers to complex problems, and demonizes entire demographic groups as oppressors.
If identity politics are Marxism today, this is definitely not the elusive “good Marxism.”
Marx’s most famous line in the 1848 “Communist Manifesto” was, “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism.” Today, the specter of Marx still haunts the world — for bad more than good.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.