Karl Marx died 134 years ago, and events have shown his ideology wanting. We look at why it is still with us.
134 years ago Karl Marx died, and to paraphrase his remarkably generous benefactor Friedrich Engels, the spectre of his ideology still haunts Europe. Despite spilling an ocean of blood in the 20th century some still subscribe to his ideas, as each failed communist state goes from a source of wild adulation to being ‘not real socialism’. Of course, it’s no accident that his ideas have remained; they draw on a long line of similar ideas, which speak both to pretentiousness and to primal human urges. It is worth a critical look at this ideology, its roots and its conceits.
Among Marxism’s most memorable conceits is the supposed inevitability of socialism. Marx claims that history itself is on his side, that laws of society direct it from aristocratic to capitalist to communist systems. The idea that history is leading to a specific destination, known as historicism, is an old and deeply flawed one. Many philosophers, most prominently Karl Popper, have pointed out that it is unfalsifiable and unverifiable, and therefore cannot be meaningfully tested or proven. Worse, it can easily be used to justify violence and worse against those who stand, as a historicist would see it, in the way of history; when the Soviet purges began in earnest, it was.
Doubly conceited is the Marxist pretence to be scientific. As said historicism, a core part of the ideology, deeply unscientific in being unfalsifiable. Further, the constructed view of human nature, which draws on Hegel, Rousseau, Helvetius and arguably on Plato, holds that human nature is a function of social constructs. This idea is utterly discredited; countless adoption studies have demonstrated the importance of nature over nurture in innumerable aspects of life. More than that, Marxist doctrine precludes the scientific method because it has no place for evidence, categorising all disagreements and counter-arguments as manifestations of class bias or ‘false consciousness’. This is to say; the logic of Marxism is unfalsifiable by its own rules; it is right because it is right, evidence otherwise be damned; hardly a scientific approach.
All of this is to be expected, really, as atop it all Marxism is unoriginal. It isn’t just that it is derivative of Hegelianism, with its historicism, collectivism and obsession with power. At its core, Marxism is a throwback to medieval dogmas that stigmatised merchants and financiers as evil, craven and inhumanly greedy, in sharp contrast to the noble, ascendant men of the aristocracy, or Christendom, or in Marx’s case, the proletariat. It is no accident that his characterisation of capitalists bears similarities to ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes; indeed, Marx himself was an anti-Semite, stating in his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’
“What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his worldly god? Money! ... Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may exist.”
These ideas recur because they play on primal, atavistic urges; envy, disappointment, inertia, tribalism and the desire to relinquish responsibility for the hard choices in life, delegating them up to fate or the gods or the state or the class system or any number of scapegoats. The feelings it plays on are perfectly human, which is why some will always be willing to ignore communism’s legacy of poverty, famine, atrocities and purges.
In conclusion, Marxism remains with us, and ideas like it may always remain with us, because it plays on some of the worse elements the human nature. This makes it all the more important to learn to lessons of history. Maintaining the liberty, democracy and prosperity we currently enjoy requires it.
2017 is the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution Marx inspired. The dark legacy of the communist system, and the developments of post-communism, will be the focus of ACRE's The Liberty Summit in Europe being held from the 7th to 9th of April in Tirana, Albania.