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March 22, 2013


Marx did not invent communism, social class, the notion of class struggle, nor revolution. All were well known before he came on the scene in middling 19th century. He was not of a class that needed to struggle; indeed he married into the aristocracy. His ideas were commonplace during the Enlightenment and much of his thought belonged to Hegel, not himself. Marx had what I would consider to be a short-sighted and narrow view that the state existed to protect private property, a view he lifted from Roman philosophers 1,800 years earlier, and hardly one in accord with his later revolutionary writing for the masses. In short, his so-called thinking was far from being all his, and there were numerous inconsistencies and personal economic bumps on the road from his Prussian boyhood to revolutionary communist. His views were not appreciated either in his homeland or in France; he was expelled from both countries and was viewed as a dangerous radical for most of his life spent in London.

What was different about Marx was that he considered man to be an economic animal and that man’s position in society was determined by economics. Although a budding economist myself, I think such a view is drawn too narrowly. I think that adoption of such an improbable criterion fails given the standing in society of Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ, whose list of tangible assets was limited to the clothes on their backs but whose intangible asset lists dwarf those of any capitalist in any age and any commentator, whether Marx, Adam Smith, trained economists in the academy or paid Wall Street hacks. Marx, of course, dealt in tangibles and the realities of the street. His baptism into Lutheranism was clearly one of convenience; he is well-known to have said that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” He proposed a different opiate for the masses; that of revolutionary communism, seizure of the means of production and equality for all (speaking of opiates). Religion was 11th on his list of 10.

What he saw in the 19th century practice of capitalism drove him one step further toward collectivism. Capitalism as then practiced was a house of horrors complete with child labor, poverty wages and seven-day weeks. Contemporaries such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hobbes abhorred what was happening to the poor in England due to capitalistic excesses but did not become communists. Marx took that additional step, probably as a defensive measure. He saw uncontrolled greed and how it was affecting the poor and middle classes and probably decided that since the ruling class owned government and there appeared to be no way to fairly distribute the wealth, only revolution could even things out. (He was wrong. There are alternatives in a democracy today, assuming we still have one.)

Marx was not about toil but about leisure. He thought it possible to redo the economy so that not just the few but everyone could enjoy the fruits of the economy’s performance, thus releasing people to enjoy surcease from constant toil and live freer and happier lives (perhaps based on Jefferson’s earlier and celebrated “pursuit of happiness” phrase). This idea, in isolated context, had and has merit, but his proposed means of achieving it amounted to radical thought in a milieu of rapidly evolving capitalism in a rapidly expanding Industrial Revolution, all occurring just short of an American experiment with the Gilded Age, where we were called upon to endure similar capitalist excesses with the Rockefeller Standard Oil bullying and other such outrages which ultimately led to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the 1911 breakup of Standard Oil and the advent of the great progressive Republican trust buster, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Marx as a commoner married into aristocracy in something of a scandalous beginning. He married Jenny von Westphalen. She was from an aristocratic Prussian family (though its vestiges of royalty were of doubtful vintage). That was, in and of itself, not the problem. The problem was that she was four years older than Marx, and that wasn’t done. Men married women who were younger; to do otherwise was considered a breach of masculine etiquette at the time. You just don’t do that! Marx did it, and that was hardly a big deal considering Marx’s later close association with the rich and spoiled Friedrich Engels, who as a philanderer took an Irish working-class woman as his mistress. There is no evidence of record  that Marx (to his credit) ever joined Engels in such filial misconduct.

Though Jenny was of aristocratic stock, the Marxes were chronically broke. Three of their children died at birth or in infancy. They lived in slum neighborhoods. Engels helped Marx financially, and he was able to write paid articles for the New York Tribune, the number one newspaper in the United States at the time. Even so, most of the time Marx and his family were in London (34 years) they were poor. It was nothing new to Marx. He had considered sailing to America earlier after being expelled from his homeland of Germany and while in France but couldn’t raise the money for the fare. He instead went to England, where he lived from 1849 to 1883, where he died not long after his daughter, Jenny (his wife’s namesake), died before reaching age 40. He had a variety of physical ills and her death may have been too much for him to endure, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Marx was beset by creditors for most of his life and once said that (speaking of himself) nobody had ever written so much about money while possessing so little. His personal knowledge of material scarcity was more than theoretical; the bills he owed were real and not just some academic exercise in the contradictions of capitalism. Speaking of academics, Marx as a humanist noted the need for abstraction but preferred to see history come alive in the streets. He believed in a unity of theory and practice.

His academic background did not prepare him for the large role he played in history. He earned a doctorate in ancient philosophy, an academic background bearing little relationship to economics and politics in which he later held forth as a communist. He was not a trained economist. I think he was just a very bright man who was a product of his times, a revolutionary Europe in upheaval; a Germany not yet unified; a time when political refugees of every stripe were seething with what they saw and felt in rapidly industrializing cities such as Cologne, Paris, Brussels, and in London, where evidence of debtors’ prisons and child indentures were still in vogue. Such a time frame also includes the American Civil War and the beginning of European colonization of Africa and its resources, speaking of upheavals of the times. It must have seemed to those then living that the world as they knew it was on the verge of ending, which was perhaps a stimulant to revolutionary thinking in an environment of capitalism run amok. The very idea of change, any change, might have seemed inviting in such a fearful era.

I think that had Marx been trained in economics and political science he would have not been so arrogant and strident in pursuing revolution as a means for change. I think his biggest mistake was when he chose revolution as such a means. I think he should have put his extraordinary intelligence and energy into trying to reform the system rather than destroy it. That is enough “I thinks” for Part II of this essay. It is difficult to write about Marx the man and stay away from the particulars of communist ideology, but I’m trying. I will write and publish Part III about his legacy soon. Stay tuned.  GERALD  E

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