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”.)
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 book Intellectuals (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 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 the New 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”.)
Man’s Destiny Dictated by “History” and Social Class
Marx was convinced that he had discovered the inescapable “laws of history” that determined the inevitable demise of capitalism and the triumph of socialism. He saw every uprising, revolt, or revolution in Europe during his lifetime as the opening shots in the coming of the collectivist paradise. And every failure in its arrival was proof for him that it was still just around the corner.
In Marx’s conception of the social world, the individual was reduced to and submerged within “social classes” of the exploiters and the exploited who were in mortal combat for control of the physical means of production. Human beings had no real ability to shape their own personal destinies. Your personal, beliefs, dreams, attitudes, and values were both meaningless and irrelevant. Your outlooks and the outcomes of your life were products of your “class status.” You were a captive and a consequence of whether you were an owner of those means of production or a victim without such ownership, who had to beg and grovel before “the capitalists” to have access to the resources owned by those exploiters who demanded a share of what your labor had produced. The capitalist’s profit was the portion of the productive efforts of the workers that was taken from them merely due to the arbitrary and artificial ability of a few in society to manipulate others to work for them at less than the full value of what that labor had produced. (See my article, “The Austrian Economists Who Refuted Marx (and Obama)”.)
The capitalist system was sustained, Marx said, by the power of the state to maintain the ill-gotten material gains of the handful of property owners—the “one percent”—against revolution. The sustainability of the system also relied upon those capitalists perpetrating a “false consciousness” on the mass of the workers through their control of the media and education that indoctrinated them to accept their exploitation as both “just” and in the “natural order” of things.
The Socialist Revolution and Dictatorship
But all bad things will come to an end, Marx assured those who listened to him, when the inescapable “progressive” development of the material forces of production matured to a point at which their further improvement required the overthrow of the capitalist system of private property and its replacement with the “socialization” of those means of production through communal ownership and control by “the workers.”
This stage of the coming socialist revolution would be preceded by the growing immiseration of the workers as capitalists replaced more and more workers with cost-saving machinery. This throws those workers into unemployment with lower and lower wages as they compete for the decreasing number of jobs left for laborers to perform. Intensified competition among the capitalists drives the less-efficient into bankruptcy and into the growing “reserve army of the unemployed.” This reduces the number of capitalist exploiters until they represent a smaller and smaller “ruling class” over an expanding propertyless “proletarian” class.
Finally, the exploitation becomes too much to bear, and the reality of their servility and abuse at the hands of the capitalists eliminates the illusion of the “false consciousness” under which the workers have accepted their lot in life. The revolution is at hand, “the masses” rise up, the capitalists are overthrown, and “the expropriators are expropriated.”
However, the workers, now liberated from their capitalist masters, are not ready for freedom and control of the means of the production. No, Karl Marx insisted that before the stateless bliss of a communist post-scarcity paradise and an end to material want, there must be a socialist transition period of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The workers may be freed from the capitalists’ direct control, but their minds, beliefs, and attitudes are still under the yoke of the capitalist mentality. They still believe in self-interested behavior and personal gain. Their consciousness has not been “raised” to a higher plain of altruistic collectivism under which the group’s interests take precedence over the mere selfish desires of the individual.
The “revolutionary vanguard”—read: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other ideologically right-thinking individuals—have the responsibility to act for the workers who do not fully understand what their true interests are and require. The revolutionary elite has the necessary task of “re-educating” the people into that higher collectivist consciousness. They must seize the reins of control in the new socialist state and direct the new system of socialist central planning; the workers must be disciplined to labor for the society as a whole.
At the same time, the revolutionary vanguard has to vigilantly protect the socialist society from any attempt by foreign capitalists and the remnants of the former domestic capitalist class from once again imposing the unjust system of “wage slavery.” If those former capitalists and their heirs refuse the process of re-education, then they will have to be “eliminated” by violent means. To protect the workers from the seductions of capitalist ideas, censorship would be necessary along with pro-socialist propaganda and the prohibition of any anti-socialist movements or political parties. (See my articles,“Karl Marx and the Presumption of a ‘Right Side’ to History,” Part I and Part II.)
The Tyrannies and Corruptions of Socialism-in-Practice
In a handful of Marx’s writings one finds, therefore, the template of tyranny that then was followed, developed, and intensified by every Marxian-inspired revolution of the 20th century, starting with Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party in Russia in 1917, through Chairman Mao’s conquest of China in 1949, to Ho Chi Minh’s regime in Vietnam in 1954, Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba in 1959, the Sandinistas’ control of Nicaragua starting in the 1980s, and Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela beginning in the 1990s.
It has been estimated that at least 150 million people have died at the hands of Marxist regimes around the world. The vast majority of these victims have been unarmed and innocent men, women, and children. They were executed, tortured, or starved or worked to death. Every communist regime in the 20th century attempted or succeeded in imposing brutal and comprehensive dictatorial control over the societies under their power. Mind control through propaganda, censorship, and indoctrination were rigorously put into effect to inculcate “socialist values” and eradicate bourgeois, capitalist thinking. (See my articles, “Socialism: Making a Century of Death and Destruction” and “The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the End of the Soviet Union”.)
Socialist central planning placed every human being in the “workers’ paradise” under absolute dependency on the State: for an education, a job, a place to live, any opportunities for economic and social advancement, and selected perks and privileges that could and would be bestowed on those loyal and obedient to the State. The socialist “classless society,” in reality, was an intricate hierarchical labyrinth of status, position, and degrees of power depending upon the individual’s place within the vast bureaucratic network of government planning.
Not that the central planning systems of communist societies generated any degree of prosperity equal to market-based economies on the other side of the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. In the 1920s and 1930s, Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek had already cogently demonstrated why socialist societies implementing comprehensive central planning would create systems of “planned chaos.” The abolition of private property in the means of production, the suppression of market competition, and the end to a price system through which profit and loss could be calculated meant that socialist systems would be poor, wasteful, and “irrational” in their use of the scarce resources under government central direction.
Thus, every member of a socialist society had to have connections, relationships, and “position” in the system to have any chance to gain access to the necessities, conveniences, and meager amenities in their countries, since (except through the pervasive and expensive black markets) little of material value could be obtained through the official channels of State distribution of all goods and services.
Marx’s Ideas Led to the Dictatorship of Paranoia
By its very ideology, Marxist regimes were tyrannies of paranoia. If individuals do not matter and only their assignment to a social class does; if the world is reduced to a life and death struggle between two irreconcilable social classes; if ideas and political philosophies are all rhetorical tools for manipulation and propaganda for power by one social class over another; if anyone and everyone who is not a member of the “proletariat” or a convert to the socialist revolutionary cause is, by definition, a “class enemy” attempting to prevent or slow down “history’s” inevitable march into communism; then, every word, every idea, every action, every event not considered to be a step on the road to Marxian collectivism is a threat to the success of the socialist revolution and the preservation of the Communist Party’s “enlightened” and “progressive” dictatorship.
“Vigilance” against ever-present “counter-revolutionary” plots, conspiracies, and attempts to undermine the achievements and advancements of the socialist State, is the never-ending watchword of the day—until the final victory when the world will be joined in one socialist people’s republic. How can the revolution be preserved if the Communist Party’s power is not complete and comprehensive—for the Party is that revolutionary vanguard that Karl Marx called for in the name of “the people”? The borders of the socialist State must be sealed against anti-socialist penetrations by people and pro-capitalist propaganda. A secret police must be ever-present to squelch opposition to the Party, and its powers must be unlimited to surveil everything and everyone; after all, the enemies of socialism are crafty in their intrigues against the just cause of “the people.”
The socialist State is surrounded by capitalist countries waiting for any opportunity to weaken and overthrow the communist system. The mere existence and growing strength of such a socialist State, grounded in the “laws of history” that Marx discerned in ways others did not, stands as the death-knell warning that the time of capitalist rule is coming to an end.
The logic of Marx’s ideas led, not by mistake or unique circumstances, to the communist totalitarian State in the 20th century by the very way that Marxism insisted upon looking at the world and the relationships between human beings. The rationale for absolute Communist Party power followed from the idea that whoever is not with the Party is against “the people” and the inevitable future-to-come when socialism triumphs. With enemies all around, ideological paranoia justified every control, every arrest, every interrogation and torture, every execution to eliminate a class enemy, or every one-way ticket to a forced labor camp to compel anti-socialists to be worked to death to build the system they opposed. In communist countries, the latter was often labeled “re-education through labor.”
The apologists for still taking Marx and his ideas seriously choose to ignore or downplay the world that socialist revolutions created and horrifically imposed on hundreds of millions of people around the globe with such disastrous consequences. They opine that what still stands are Marx’s criticisms of modern capitalist society. Yet, every one of Marx’s predictions about where, when, and how socialism would come about have been proven wrong.
Every element of his critique of capitalist or competitive market-based societies has been incorrect. Wealth, not misery, has come with relatively free-market systems, a wealth that has lifted much of humanity out of poverty and into amazing degrees of prosperity—and continues to do so in many more corners of the world. Personal freedom and civil liberties have gone hand-in-hand with respect for and preservation of private property and the rule of law. And human reality in society has nothing to do with the illusionary conception of a world engulfed in “class conflicts” of the type constructed by Marx. (See my article, “Karl Marx’s Misconceptions about Man and Markets”.)
Yes, let us mark that two hundred years have passed since the birth of Karl Marx. But let us use this anniversary to look at the man, his ideas, and their consequences with open and clear eyes. We should use this to remember and reflect on the tragic harm done to humanity through the destructive influence of Karl Marx.
Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.