Marx and critics

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx warned that Communism was haunting Europe. While many writers have proclaimed the death of Communism, Karl Marx continues to haunt intellectuals. Two recent articles – one in The Economist (Dec. 21, 2002) and the other in Foreign Policy (Nov.-Dec. 2002) – grudgingly concede the continued interest and respect for the thinking of Karl Marx.

But it is not just intellectuals who hold the old master in high esteem. The same article from The Economist cites a BBC poll to determine the greatest thinkers. Marx won over Einstein, Newton and Darwin. Not bad for a fiercely independent thinker who never sought the approval of the rich, powerful and respectable.

Marx’s persistent popularity and influence are even more remarkable in light of the almost total absence of his name and works from the television studios, the news magazines, and the daily press. Despite every effort to marginalize, trivialize, or simply ignore his thought, Marx’s ideas continue to inspire and move masses of people.

Working often with his close collaborator, Frederich Engels, Marx left a remarkable body of work that covers an enormous field of research. Marx’s critics – often hired intellectual assassins – typically parody his thought, ignoring the subtlety of his arguments.

For example, Joshua Muravchik, in the Foreign Policy article, mocks the idea that Marx’s method or his views were “scientific.” What he fails to point out is that Marx viewed his theories as scientific because they were not inspired by moral indignation like the views of utopian socialists, but were grounded in a careful study of history and laws of human development that Marx believed that he had exposed.

Drawing upon the most advanced science of the time – the works of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, biologist Charles Darwin and others – Marx and Engels located their approach in the same tradition. Though we may dispute – in light of subsequent research – many of the conclusions of Morgan and Darwin, no one but a fool would challenge their stature as scientists. And likewise for Marx.

To further bolster his attack upon Marx’s method, Muravchick caricatures Marx’s view of scientific prediction, labeling it “prophecy.” He writes Marx and Engels “believed they had discovered a pattern to history that would produce socialism regardless of human will or ingenuity.”

This gets it exactly backwards: Marx and Engels believed they had discovered a pattern to history that would produce socialism because of human will and ingenuity. They believed that they had discovered the laws of social development that would impel people to make decisions and innovate. Muravchick confuses fatalism with scientific determinism. Marx didn’t.

And the author of the article in The Economist, though less shrill in tone, equally takes Marx to task: The class war is over thanks to “private property, liberal political rights and the market.”

Maybe, maybe not. Though I think the old man would view that statement as a leap of faith and not grounded in an understanding of the laws of social development. Instead, he would point to class conflict in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Palestine, Southern Africa, and every other place where workers struggle against exploitation and oppression.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org