This year marked the 140th anniversary of Karl Marx’ death. Today, he is still considered by many both within and beyond the academic sphere as one of humanity’s greatest thinkers of all time. Not only did he provide the ideological impetus for Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and many other mass-murdering revolutionaries; he inspired countless social reformers, political figures and philosophers after him. Marx may very well be one of the most impactful intellectuals to have ever walked the earth—an achievement greatly thrust by his utopian promises.
What was it that Marx promised the world? The end of all alienation. What was alienation? The loss of the feeling of belonging to a species. What had caused this alienation? Private property and labour division, Marx argued.
Firstly, the concept of ownership, “private property”—the desire to “have”—had rendered man egotistical, estranged from his social nature, and thus from his species.
Secondly, Marx believed that human beings were defined by their work. “What they are,” he stated, “coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” The division of labour chained people to their specific station: one was a fisherman, another a factory worker, another a lawyer.
This separation alienated people from each other. Since work guarantees subsistence, labour had become a necessity rather than a creative expression of one’s abilities. This necessity was motivated by a selfish reason (survival), which further alienated people from their social nature. Work was for the self; not for the benefit of the species, the community of mankind.
Communism: chicken and egg
The cure for this terrible alienation was communism. Under communism, the means of production—factories, farms, mines, distribution channels, etc.—would be communally owned, by everyone. As a result, the relations of production would become “perfectly simple and intelligible” and everything would be handled “very simply” to everyone’s satisfaction according to “a common plan” (which is nowhere explained).
As a cause of alienation, the division of labour, which lies at the root of the formation of classes (one is a worker, one is a lawyer, one is a CEO), would have to dissipate, thus allowing everyone to develop themselves freely “in all directions”. This would make it possible for people “to do this today, that tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, to herd cattle in the evening”.
This labour freedom would energise man to such a degree that a superabundance of goods would be the result: even if the working day were to be cut in half, people would still produce more than ever. With all goods available in abundance, the concept of private property—the desire to “have” and the associated selfishness—would vanish from people’s minds, as everyone would have access to however much they wanted of anything.
Liberated from their selfishness, communist people would transform into fully social creatures: always willing to man the factories, clean the sewers, and dig for coal, because it was an opportunity to exercise their capacities in the service of their species. All of the hard and dangerous work would be done voluntarily, even when all would be perfectly free to choose what to do on any given day, whether it was fishing, composing music or writing poetry.
Absurdly, this communist man was both the product of the communist society and the prerequisite to establish that society: the superabundance would render man unselfish, but only an already unselfish man would, under conditions of labour freedom, produce the superabundance. In an embarrassing ignorance of causality, Marx defined his communist man as both the chicken and the egg.
How would this impossible communism be initiated? Marx was convinced that, generally, only “forceful” revolution would do to smash the power of capitalism, church and state—a violent revolution that required “despotic inroads” when it came to “the issue of private property,” as he wrote in the infamous Communist Manifesto.
The French philosopher Proudhon told Marx that he would not get very far if all he had to offer the proletariat was “blood to drink”. Marx denounced him as an idiot suffering from an excess of imagination.
Karl Grün, founder of “True Socialism”, warned Marx that his plan would merely shift oppression from the working classes onto the bourgeoisie, rather than abolish oppression altogether—the purported endgame of socialist/communist strivings. Marx accused Grün of being a gullible idiot.
Anarchist pontiff Bakunin was concerned that should the workers seize control of the state rather than abolish it, the revolution would become a new dictatorship. Marx only scoffed at his rival’s “nightmares of dominion”.
Marx has been proven wrong. None of the communist revolutions that took inspiration from him—which is all of them—established the classless society of communism. To the contrary, the warnings uttered by Grün, Proudhon, and Bakunin became horrible realities, time and again. Marx never felt the need to heed the warnings of other socialist thinkers. He was a man of superior intellect, after all; a man who despised the emotional utopianism that communism had been heralding before him. He saw himself as the pioneer who had “discovered” a “scientific basis” for communism.
But that is a false claim.
Marx’ “materialistic dialectic” was not a historic “law of motion” but merely a narrative—soothsaying disguised as science, unfalsifiable and based upon a grossly incomplete analysis of history. In addition, he had proclaimed the inevitability of communism long before the influence of positivism—empirical science—found its way into his work.
Understanding the limitations of the persuasive power of philosophy, Marx intended to prove, by means of an economic critique, the downfall of capitalism.
In 1867, Marx published the first volume of his Capital trilogy. The bloated, pompous volume reads more like the case for the prosecution against capitalism than like a scientific work. Though his critique of capitalism includes valid points, the book is devalued by its overt bias and the cherry-picking of data. Worse, the two fundamental building blocks upon which Marxian economics rests are seriously defective. There are major omissions in his labour theory of value, and he was never able to prove his alleged law of diminishing profits—the cornerstone of his “scientific” predictions.
Marx, unable to tie up the loose ends in his economic theories, spent the last twenty-six years of his life gathering data hoping to find the missing piece of the puzzle that would transform his patchwork theories into an irrefutable whole—but he never could. On 14 March 1883, the iconically bearded activist died at his desk at the age of 64. Frederick Engels, his lifelong ideological companion, compiled two additional volumes of Capital from his friend’s notebooks; but he, too, was powerless to amend the axiomatic flaws of Marxian economics, despite his cocksure promises.
Leave his mark on history, Marx surely did—and what a dark mark it is. He inspired the killing of an estimated 100 million people (the real number may be much higher) and, when counted across the generations, the enslavement of several billion under iron-fist regimes. The alienation that he promised to dissolve was nowhere dissolved; the classless utopia he prophesied was never erected; instead of a superabundance, there was famine. Even his eagerly anticipated proletarian uprising never occurred: he only inspired people like himself—intellectual bourgeois misérables and their thugs—to take up arms and overthrow iniquitous regimes to establish their own, often worse.
In summary, none of the good things Marx promised came about.
So why do people still believe him?
Marx was a gifted storyteller, an eloquent wordsmith, and very smart. As he privately confided to Engels, his dialectical approach allowed him to word his propositions “so as to be right either way”, a statement corroborated by Arnold Ruge, a publisher who briefly collaborated with him. He remarked that Marx possessed:
the gift of affirming and proving everything, a true Eulenspiegel of the dialectic. No one suspects his sleight of hand.
As a consequence, the 50,000 pages of Marx’ writing are a giant buffet of ambiguities and dialectical positions that occasion an endless pilpul about “what Marx really meant”, a debate whose outcome is set in stone: those who disagree with Marx do not understand him by dint of their own ignorance, and whoever does is a sage able to fathom the master—or at least an obedient disciple.
Marx tricked countless lesser intellectuals into believing that the conflicting disarray that is his œuvre is really a scientific riddle that only the wisest would be able to decipher. But there is nothing to decipher; he made it up as he went along, roaring, fulminating, trampling causality and logic underfoot as he ruthlessly made his way towards “the Truth”.
At its core, Marxism is not a science; it is a persuasive system built upon a utopian promise, unprovable “science”, an extremely reductionist view of history and a thunderous mountain of criticism, the whole thing ruled by a morality of “the end justifies the means”. Marxism has proven itself very effective at persuading people to destroy their world, but wholly inept at guiding them towards the promised land of classlessness, equality, and labour freedom.
Communism truly is a haunting spectre: possessing, terrorising, but never materialising.
I am nothing to me. But my youthful arms
Will convulsively clench your chest,
While the abyss yawns in darkness for both of us.
And if you go under, I shall follow laughing,
Whispering in your ears: Descend, come with me, friend!