Author’s Note: if you recognize what follows from other books, I would direct you to this essay.
The best political philosophers are rarely the ones who have the largest impact on history. For an idea to spread throughout the world, it firstly requires a simplicity that makes it amenable to easy explanation, and secondly a novelty that makes it so different from what ordinary people have ever thought of that it completely turns their view on the world upside down as much as any religious revelation. Liberal philosophers of the modern era like Locke, Montesquieu, Burke (a liberal, yes), Smith, Madison, Adams, Bentham, Mill, Keynes, Reinhold Niebuhr, Raymond Aron, Eric Hoffer, Isaiah Berlin, John Kenneth Galbraith, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, John Rawls, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Amartya Sen, Vaclav Havel, Michael Walzer, Richard Posner, Joseph Stieglitz, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Samantha Power, Peter Beinart, may each be a thinker of genius, but their ideas were almost entirely unrevolutionary - they were reformist. They lay in bed at night dreaming of unsexy and dreary reforms within the framework of the status quo so as not to risk chaos, exile, and death for millions upon millions. But the number of world-changing intellectuals who advocated a complete philosophical upending of the world reads almost like an intellectual encyclopedia of the modern era: Rousseau, Voltaire, Jefferson, Hamilton, Wagner, Marx, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Shaw, Russell, Spengler, Heidegger, Brecht, Strauss, Hayek, Adorno, Sartre, Rand, Qutb, Toynbee, Schaeffer, Hobsbawm, Kristol, Chomsky, Foucault, Huntington, Habermas, Baudrillard, Said, Sontag, Greer, Dawkins, Singer, Hitchens, Zizek, Fukuyama, Butler, Roubini, Ramadan, Ferguson, Klein, ... You can make your own list, but I guarantee that you've heard of more thinkers on the second list than the first, and what these lists demonstrate is three important notions.
1. Ideas matter. They are the ideals through which we view the world, and the tension between our ideals and our boring material reality is what creates our life stories.
2. People who are attracted to ideas are particularly attracted to the most dangerous of them. All dreamers dream of transcending their humdrum lives, with all the banal compromises and petty frustrations which result from living.
3. The thinkers who provide the most dangerous ideas are catnip to people of intellectual bent, because they all dream of a better world in which to live is no longer a tragedy. But such a world can never exist. So long as death is inevitable, tragedy is also inevitable. Tragedy can be consoled, ameliorated, put off, but it can never be eliminated.
Of all the thinkers we’ve thus far mentioned, it should go without saying that absolutely none had a greater impact than Karl Marx. Only Nietzsche has thus far come close to having the same influence. And yet, his impact on the world was not due to the power of his ideas, it was due to his ideas’ effectiveness. His greatest impact upon the world was not due to his philosophical writing, which was convoluted and often shockingly trivial, but through his polemical opinions, for which he possessed such a genius that his positions dictated terms to worldwide discourse for more than a century after his death.
He was not a particularly great philosopher. He didn’t have to be. Saint Augustine wasn't either, and he was the ultimate source for the justification of Catholic Doctrine for nearly a millennium. But Marx was, like so many philosophers of our present day, convinced that he could apply to this humanitarian subject a rigor that endowed it with all the empirical truth of science. The Communist governments surely believed he succeeded, and they made courses in Marxist philosophy a university graduation requirement as important as science itself.
Marx was born Jewish, descended from a line of eminent Rabbis. But his father converted to Lutheranism, and his son was, for a time, quite a passionate Christian. But anyone who has ever read or listened to Rabbinic commentary will immediately recognize in Marx’s writing style something fundamentally Rabbinic - a critique of others, issued almost like a pendulum between the extremes of academic obfuscation and temperamental venom.
In truth, Marx was also never much of an academic - which could be as much a badge of honor as a criticism. He took his doctorate from Jena University, which in 19th century Germany is a bit like taking a doctorate from the University of Maryland or American University rather than an Ivy League School, and a permanent academic post always eluded him. While this was no doubt due in part to the extremity of his views, it probably also has to do with the fact that he rarely published academic research. His most famed book, Das Kapital, was supposed to be six volumes long, but Marx only managed to publish the first volume during his lifetime, and the other two published volumes were compiled by his famed partner, Friedrich Engels, from thousands of pages of notes. These second two volumes are every bit as confusing and boring as you’d expect from a book left in such an unfinished, disorganized state. Even the first volume is thought of by many to be incomprehensible. It is a volume in which there are two separate volumes, and the famed Marxist scholar Louis Althusser, though hardly an orthodox Marxist, insisted that in order to truly understand Marx, you have to begin in Chapter 4 of Part 2. And even in those parts which are comprehensible and had great impact, Marx’s extreme misuse of scholarship and statistics, falsified quotations, omissions of acts of political labor reform, and straw men, has been demonstrated time and again by writers far better informed than I.
Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how much of his thought was grounded in the virulent racism and anti-semitism which he possessed for virtually all his adult life - which is more than a tinge ironic given his extremely Jewish background When dealing with one Jewish labor leader, a man named Lasalle, he called him ‘Baron Itzig,’ (a diminutive of Isaac), “the Jewish N-gger”, “a greasy Jew disguised under brilliantine and cheap jewels. He once wrote to Engels of this man who clearly irked him beyond many others: “It is now clear to me that, as the shape of his head and the growth of his hair indicates, he is descended from Negroes who joined in Moses’s flight from Egypt (unless his mother or grandmother on the father’s side was crossed with a N_gger). This union of a German on a Negro base was bound to produce an extraordinary hybrid.” Nor was his racial animus spared from family members: one of his daughters married a Cuban man of whom Marx disapproved and referred to as “Negrillo.”. Choice quotes from his an essay called “The World Without Jews” include a number of such gems, but the most damning of all is this one: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist. Money abases all the gods of mankind and changes them into commodities. Money is the self-sufficient value of all things. It has, therefore, deprived the whole world, both the human world and Nature, of their own proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and existence: this essence dominates him and he worships it. The god of the Jews has been secularized and has become the god of the world.” Is it really so unreasonable to wonder if when Marx refers to the ‘bourgoisie’ he really means the Jews?
Still more damning, Marx seemed to know very little about actual labor. Marx was never more withering than he was when dealing with actual labor leaders, who generally were far more susceptible to realities of gradual reform than they were to dreams of world-upending revolution. When he became head of the Communist league, he put many of them on “trial” for being insufficiently committed to the revolution, and while he certainly didn’t kill them, it’s hard to imagine that Stalin didn’t look upon Marx’s showtrials as a sanction to his manner of purging his own government whenever he felt a slight slip upon his base of power. Marx’s uncle, Lion Philips, created what would eventually become the Philips Electronic company - one of the most important electronic companies in the world. Marx would have benefited enormously from his instruction. But Marx never had much use for his uncle except as an occasional source of financial aid. So far as we know, he may never have even set foot in a factory. Had he done so, he would have found that not all factories were alike. As has been the case throughout the entirety of the industrial age, those businessmen who treated their employees well were rewarded for their ministrations by loyalty and praise from them. It is only in those places where workers are exploited and treated badly that Marx is lauded. And it is inevitably in those conditions, as much of the world is in today, that Marx’s ghost is conjured.
There are many other imputations of Marx’s character which should be called to account in any serious discussion of him: most shockingly, a servant whom he kept nearly his entire life by offering her room and board without paying her a cent, and then having a child by her whom he refused to acknowledge paternity - particularly disgusting behavior when it comes from the father of modern class warfare. But this is ultimately not of consequence when discussing his ideas and influence.
Of much more consequence is the fact that, contrary to what’s commonly supposed by those who’ve heard of Marx only in passing, Marx did not invent Communism. Underneath his pseudo-technical jargon, Marx, like Rousseau before him, was a primitivist at heart. He viewed Communism as mankind’s natural state - the original hunter-gatherer society, corrupted then by agriculture, the first industrial society. Surely there were many societies since then whose rules resembled communism, but Communism as an intellctual construct is, in fact, mostly the invention of Sir Thomas More, the writer of the 16th century book “Utopia,” and falsely enshrined by the amazing 1960’s play and movie, A Man for All Seasons. More envisioned a society of collective ownership, whose rulers were guided entirely by reason. Unlike the superbly rational More of the movie portrayed by Paul Scofield, the real-life Sir Thomas More was something of a fanatic who sent many to the executioner’s block during his government career before being sent himself, and was not above the totalitarian temptation of thinking that man is first and foremost a creature of reason who only need cast off the shackles of oppressive institutions to blossom into a creature like God himself. In the mid-seventeenth century, a group of English Puritans called the 'Diggers' published a pamphlet advocating for the restoration of man's natural relationship to the Earth, and promised food, clothing, and shelter to all people who came to farm with them during a period when food prices were at an all-time high. Furthermore, the term "communism" itself only became common parlance after the French Revolution, when a prototype version of it was enacted in 1792 by the Jacobin Club under their placid but deadly dictator, Maximillian Robespierre - who in less than two years of rule not only established 7,000 communes in France, but also sent 20,000 French to the guillotine.
Marx’s impact upon the world was not as a philosopher. His impact was as a polemical journalist and a kind of seer or sybil. His calling was sacred, and much of his writing bears an extreme resemblance to the apocalyptic rhetoric of Old Testament Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Polemic was a field for which he had a talent which equalled men as famous for political polemic as Bernard Shaw and Christopher Hitchens. It is in this field, the Public Marx, in which he created the worldwide revolution with phrases like:“The workers have no country,” “Religion is the opium of the masses,” “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” “Workers of all countries, unite!”, “The dictatorship of the proletariat,” “Religion is only the illusory sun around which man revolves, until he begins to revolve around himself.” “Bourgeois marriage is the community of wives,” “The ruling ideas of each age have been the ideas of the ruling class.” And most significantly of course, the final three lines of the Communist Manifesto: “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite!” The only problem with his use of these is that few of these epigrams were original. Even if Marx was not a particularly original writer, he was a great reader, and knew exactly which sources to borrow from in order to make his arguments resound most powerfully.
As a philosopher, he was very much a man of his time who synthesized the material from two of Germany’s three most famous philosophers of the generation before him. From Hegel, he received the idea of the dialectic, from Feuerbach, the idea of materialism. Together, he arrived at the very pithy synthesis, ‘dialectical materialism,’ albeit that is not a term which comes from Marx himself but from a Soviet intellectual. To explain this on an extremely simplified level, the dialectic means that every thought, or thesis, has a shadow self - an opposite thought, or antithesis, and when the two thoughts are combined, we arrive at reality,which is a synthesis of assertion and doubt. The most famous example Hegel gives is that pure life or ‘being’, is almost indistinguishable from death, ‘nothing’. We are living and accumulating the experiences of our lives at every moment of it, and yet at the same time we are dying by the very fact that we are alive. And because every one of us is both life and death, pure being and pure nothingness, we are a synthesis of the two - ‘becoming.’ We are both becoming the sum-total of our lives, and we are also becoming nothingness as we draw ever closer to that undiscovered country from which no man returns.
But while Marx admired Hegel deeply, he wanted nothing to do with what he viewed as the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of Hegel, with all its talk of pure being and states of consciousness. To Marx, our brains were simple raw material, and we were endowed by science with the ability to perceive the world. To Marx, we are not a divided being of dust and divinity, we are purely dust, and completely limited by what our body allows us to see. In this sense, he was a follower of Ludwig Feuerbach, and Feuerbach was the antithesis through which Marx formed his synthesis. To Feuerbach, God arises purely out of the human need for him. God is simply human longing made manifest in a being who can vicariously accomplish all those extraordinary things of which humans are not capable.
Marx meant, by synthesizing these two concepts, to create a new philosophy that would render all other philosophies obsolete. He did no such thing, but in some ways, he did something still more extraordinary and dangerous. He created an entirely new conception of religion and metaphysics for modern times - a religion without God. If human beings are not capable of the extraordinary through religion, then Marx provided a new way in which humanity could be capable of the extraordinary, and he did this through his synthesis of Hegel and Feuerbach.
But whereas Hegel thought that the Dialectic applied to all things, all ideas, all concepts and actions in our world, Marx thought it applied to only one idea, an idea which gave history meaning and gave the world a new purpose. In place of a thesis stating that the Jews are the root of the world’s evil - a popular concept of his time to say the least - Marx substituted the bourgeoisie for his thesis, alleging - not without justification - that this ruling class controlled the earth with its money, its greed, its usury, its private property, its wage-labor. As an antithesis, Marx provided the workers of the world, who were kept under, their squalor and toil keeping the bourgeois class in luxury. When the workers of the world rise up against their oppressors to take what is rightfully theirs, they will obliterate both classes and create the glorious synthesis - a communal kingdom of the earth without money, poverty, private property, hopelessness. Man would create Heaven itself, but do so upon Earth. Marx may not have promised eternal life and salvation, but he allowed millions upon millions to immerse themselves within a community of like-thinking people, all of whom are selflessly contributing to the betterment of the world, and all of whom lend their credibility to bloody deeds in the name of it as extraordinary as any of those perpetrated by any religion.
Marx did not, as some allege, end metaphysics. He created an entirely new metaphysic which envisions man, creature of science and reason, using the complexities of his knowledge to return to his primitive, pristine state. This, according to Marx, is the ideal, the Eden, the noumenal world which history ordained our separation from, yet Marxian history ordains that we shall return. Marx was supposed to be the salvation from messianic faiths, yet he entangled us within them all the more.