A specter is haunting the West. The ghostly presence of Karl Marx is at once unwelcome and unexpected.
For Europeans of my generation, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the definitive end of a seemingly invincible empire. We blithely assumed that its intellectual architects, among whom Karl Marx held the place of highest honor, were to be forever buried beneath its rubble. Jacques Derrida published his book Specters of Marx in 1993, pointing out that the world remained a cesspit of pain, poverty, suffering and injustice, regardless of the demolition of the wall which marked off the Soviet sector of Berlin. But at the time, he seemed little more than a bad loser, impotently shaking a fist at the triumphalism of the West as epitomized by Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that the end of history had arrived in the shape of liberal capitalist democracy. Yet twenty-five years on, it is Fukuyama who looks to have played the role of the fool and Derrida who played that of Cassandra the prophet.
The problem is simple: the triumph of the West has proved illusory. In retrospect, 1989 looks less like the result of good vanquishing evil and more like one political system simply proving less robust than the alternative. That one heavyweight boxer beats his opponent to pulp does not mean that he is immortal or will be champion forever; it simply indicates that on the day of the big fight he had more stamina and skill. That was the West in the great clash of the Cold War. But victory did not make the West into the meaning of history, as the rise of alternative modernities in China, India and Russia indicate.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the West is now laboring under the burden of problems which liberal democracy seems unable to address. Intellectual critiques abound across the political and cultural spectrum, from Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed to Thomas Picketty’s Capital. Some of this disenchantment with the West is the result of fading memories. I grew up thinking that Soviet communism meant gulags and long lines at the bakery, and that domestic British socialism meant inflation, strikes, and anti-democratic demagogues like Arthur Scargill deciding who ran the country. Today those images are meaningless to many under the age of 40. What triumphed over the gulag and the food shortages—the liberal capitalism of Fukuyama—means, for many young people, little more than student debt, a housing market priced beyond reach, and the prospect of a lifetime of declining standards of living.
The Public(ity) Intellectual
In such conditions, Marx has risen from his grave and once more walks abroad. Whether it is the cultural polemics of the postcolonial theorists or the more straightforward demands for redistribution of the world’s wealth, Marx is proving an inspiration. Therefore, it behooves those of us who are not Marxists to ask why and to mull over both the significance of his unquiet grave and how we might respond.
Two recent books help in this regard: A World to Win by Sven-Eric Liedman and Marx and Marxism by Gregory Claeys. While Leszek Kolakowski’s trilogy, Main Currents of Marxism remains indispensable (and perhaps the best starting point) for those wanting to understand Marx and the fissipparous Marxisms which his work inspired, these latest books have a number of things to commend them. First, they take account of the huge amount of Marx material that has been edited and made available since the fall of the Soviet Union. Second, the authors are enthusiastic—though not uncritical—about their subject, which helps prevent the kind of lazy criticisms that are the trademark of much anti-Marx literature.
Liedman’s book joins the ranks of recent weighty Marx biographies, of which those by Jonathan Sperber and Gareth Stedman-Jones are the most notable in English. Like those authors, Liedman is careful to expound Marx as a nineteenth-century thinker. To understand Marx, one must first understand Hegel and also the appropriation of Hegel by men like Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. It was Marx’s break with Bauer and then his constructive development of Feuerbach’s arguments about religion and alienation that laid much of the foundation for his later thinking. And what thinking it was: everything, from economic exchange to technology to chemistry was of interest to Marx, who emerges from Liedman’s pages as an intellectual omnivore. Liedman is careful to intersperse biographical narrative with careful exposition of Marx’s texts, always careful to highlight debates in the secondary scholarship.
Combined with his ability to write not simply at an academic level but also as a journalist, there is a sense that Marx was an early type of public intellectual. With his penchant for feuds in which he did not simply critique enemies (many of whom were former friends) but rather destroyed them under an avalanche of argumentative prose, he is perhaps proof of Joseph Epstein’s observation that public intellectuals are really publicity intellectuals. Liedman’s Marx is at once both an intellectual giant and a man at times consumed by petty personal rivalries.
For those who want a shorter introduction to Marx, Claeys’ book offers both a concise biography, a good exposition of the central themes of his thought, and a helpful narrative of the development of Marxisms in the near century and a half since his death. Claeys—a sympathetic commentator but not a card-carrying disciple—is careful to avoid the usual apologetic platitudes regarding Soviet atrocities of the ‘If only Lenin had lived!’ variety. He is quite clear on the violence which Lenin espoused and even resists the temptation to make Nikolai Bukharin into some kind of saint. Bukharin was, of course, a keen Stalinist—right up until the moment when Stalin decided he wasn’t.
What is clear from both books is that Marx remains a substantial thinker whose work remains of interest to political scientists, economists, sociologists, and cultural critics. Accounts of his thought such as these are helpful in understanding the man. But why has he risen from the grave to enjoy such contemporary popularity? It is surely not his theory of surplus value, nor his ingenious inversion of Hegel, nor even his ability to express political opinions through flashes of brilliant prose that attracts the latest generation of his admirers and who sport his face on tee shirts and coffee mugs. Indeed, was his writing ever the key to his popularity? Fidel Castro only reached page 370 in Das Kapital (that’s roughly half way), but that actually makes him one of the more impressive students; Ho Chi Minh simply used the book as a pillow. So why the popularity?
Marx For Capitalists
Claeys comes closest to explaining his appeal:
The great secret of Marx’s success, it is argued in this book, lay in his ability to synthesize [his] vision into a few simple formulae which the masses could easily digest, while presenting a complex and all-encompassing worldview which was captivating and intellectually stimulating to the well-educated. (page 3)
Attractive slogans expressing big ideas undergirded by a comprehensive philosophy of life—that is surely part of the secret. Yet the appeal of Marx runs deeper than mere slogans to the man himself—the latte-drinking revolutionaries of our day invoke not so much his slogans as his image. Tee shirts, coffee mugs, even champagne and (irony of ironies) piggy banks all now bear his name or his image. That in itself would seem ripe for a Marxist critique. It takes no great insight to see that the advent of such Marx paraphernalia indicates that the great critic of capitalism has himself become a consumer commodity. So much is obvious; but there is also a deeper Marxist critique of Karl MarxTM. He is not simply a commodity; he is also a fetish whereby the mere invocation of his name or his picture has apparently been given the power to signal virtue or proclaim a renunciation of consumer capitalism or inspire some ill-defined hope of a better future. And again, maybe religious devotion to Marx has become the opium of the people, deadening their present pain with a view to offering future, albeit earthly, happiness. The mythology of Marx may be objective nonsense but, like all great myths, its power to inspire is not dependent upon its actual truth value.
Yet the irony of Marx goes even deeper than his arrival as commodity or as a fetish. He is also a saint whose physical presence exerts a strange, mystical power. Years ago, I found myself one afternoon in Highgate in north London. With nothing better to do, I wandered over to the cemetery to find the grave of Marx. The giant bust which marks the spot was as imposing as I had expected, but more impressive were the nearby graves of other socialist leaders and theorists. This was clearly holy ground, a place of pilgrimage and veneration. I could not help but draw an obvious contrast with a certain dead Christian leader: while Calvin is buried goodness knows where in an unmarked grave, the Communist Party of Great Britain made sure that the grave of their intellectual lodestar is there for all to see. His relics apparently still exude power.
And is that not ironic? The man who, perhaps more than any other, attempted to offer a comprehensive materialist interpretation of the whole of life has become not simply a designer label for the revolutionary arrivistes of the consumer age but also the venerated object of a saint cult for his intellectual followers, which witnesses to something profound in human nature (a concept which certainly the later Marx would have questioned).
But even though the Marx of today is a myth, the conservative armchair critics of these tee-shirted latte-drinking revolutionaries still need to ask, Why is the myth of Marx so attractive to a rising generation, despite all of the historical evidence that Marxism of any variety is always intellectually, morally, and economically disastrous? Yes, young people lack the lived experience of the Cold War to inform their thinking; yes, it may well be that their critique of capitalism is often no more sophisticated than an emotional conviction that ‘the system’ is unfair, or has cheated them in some ill-defined way. But for a myth to have compelling power, for a myth to grip the imagination, it must speak to a real, deep-seated need or aspiration in those who believe it. In a West where life has come to mean little more than conspicuous consumption underwritten by massive levels of personal debt, where value is a function of price, where the banking crisis of 2008 gave us all an intimation of the fragility of our world, and where freedom is seen to be increasingly a preserve of the rich, it is surely not surprising that the myth of Marx has returned to haunt us. Latte Marxists may be ignorant and naïve in their critiques of the status quo and their proposals for the future, but their very existence surely points us to the disjointed and conflicted nature of the world in which we live. They did not emerge spontaneously from a vacuum, any more than Donald Trump did.
The second coming of Marx is testimony to both truth and falsehood. Truth, in that it indicates that people instinctively know that the world is not as it should be, that injustice and poverty and disease and greed are evils which should not be. Yet it also testifies to the human ability to believe anything rather than face up to the truth—even a social and cultural philosophy which has produced little but poverty, misery and devastation wherever it has taken root, of which Venezuela is merely the latest example. That the world economic crisis of 2008 has led to the resurrection of Marx and not focused minds rather on the resurrection of Christ says something deep about human beings. We long for utopia but we will not bow the knee to the one who leads us to paradise. To put it in terms Marx himself would understand, human beings in the present age are strange, contradictory, alienated phenomena who labor under a false consciousness that blinds them to the truth that sets them free.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.