Author's note: This is a lightly edited version of a speech I delivered at the Foundation for Economic Education in March 2012. The written version retains the character of an oral presentation.
I would like to address two important questions: First, why should any of us care about Marxism in a post-Marxist world? After all, the Berlin Wall fell almost twenty-five years ago and communism seems dead just about everywhere. Second, why have so many people been attracted to Marxism over the course of the past 150 years? Or maybe, the better question here is: What kind of person is attracted to Marxism?
In my view, we should still care about Marxism precisely because so many people are still attracted to it, which means, of course, that it is not dead—and, as I will argue, not by a long shot. In fact, despite everything we know about its shameful history, Marxism is making a comeback.
To see why, let us begin by reviewing the essence of Marxism in theory and practice.
In a remarkably short period of time, the philosophy of Karl Marx profoundly changed the course of human civilization. In fact, no system of ideas transformed the world as quickly or as comprehensively as did the philosophy of Marx—not even the teachings of Jesus or Muhammad. At the height of Marxism’s political power and influence, half the world was under its dominion, and the other half feared that it too would succumb to communist imperialism.
Everything changed, of course, in 1989. When the Berlin Wall fell, many in the West saw for the first time the material and spiritual rot that lay within the Marxist-Leninist world. We now know the ugly truth. Marxism has led to rivers of blood and an ocean of tears wherever it has been tried.
The best scholarship now tells us that between 1917 and 1989 approximately 100 million people were murdered by various Marxist regimes, and millions more were tortured, starved, exiled, enslaved, and sent to concentration camps. Collectivization, one-party rule, man-made famine, secret police, arrests, propaganda, censorship, ethnic cleansing, purges, show trials, reeducation camps, gulags, firing squads, and killing fields—all these defined life under communism.
Whole new categories of “antisocial” crimes were created by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Under communism, for example, it became a crime punishable by death to be a member of the “bourgeoisie,” an “enemy of the people,” a “counterrevolutionary,” or a “deviationist.” Even those who were just skeptical or indifferent to the goals of the regime were labeled saboteurs and subject to imprisonment or worse. Nothing in the long span of human history comes close to the tyranny, terror, and mass genocide caused by Marxism in power—nothing.
It should not surprise us, then, that Marx seemed to have lost credibility in the years after 1989. Not only had the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc imploded, but Western intellectuals seemed to have given up, or at least to have become embarrassed by, their Marxist faith. At the time, reasonable people assumed that Das Kapital would end up in the dustbin of history along with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. . . .
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1 Terry Eagleton, Why Marx was Right (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
2 Karl Marx, "The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844," in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 95 – 96. This phrase—"The enemy of being is having"—is an essentialized distillation of Marx's larger discussion about alienation found in the "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts." The distilled phrase was first used by Irving Kristol in his Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: New American Library, 1978), 16. Kristol presumably adapted this phrase from Lionel Trilling's discussion of Marx in Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 122.
3 Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Program," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 531.
4 Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.
5 Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 95 – 96.
6 Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 103.
7 Marx, "The German Ideology," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 160 (emphasis added).
8 I am indebted to my fourteen-year-old son, Samuel M. Thompson, for helping me to understand this crucial point.
9 Marx, "On the Jewish Question," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 46.
10 The actual concept "false consciousness," though implicit in Marx's writings, was first used by his intellectual partner, Friedrich Engels, in an 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. The letter can be seen online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm.
11Marx, "On the Jewish Question," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 43.
12 Marx, "On the Jewish Question," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 36.
13 Mao Tse-tung, "Problems of War and Strategy," in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_12.htm.
14 Che Guevara, "Message to the Tricontinental," at http://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1967/04/16.htm.
15 On Ayn Rand's discussion of the "morality of death," see Atlas Shrugged (New York: Plume, 1957), 1025 – 1047.