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June 23, 2014

Much of the following recitation on Marx’s personal life is based on an article by Terry Eagleton (Is Marx still relevant?) in the April 2013 edition of Harper’s. The rest is my take on Marx’s relevancy.
Karl Marx was not the inventor of revolution – or even socialism. Born in 1818, he missed out on the American and French Revolutions and the final banishment of Napoleon to insular climes, so perhaps having barely missed out on an explosion of ”liberty, equality and fraternity” on both sides of the Atlantic, he thought to start a new revolution though, as we shall see, he was inconsistent in identifying the root causes for any such proposed upheaval.
Marx was born in Prussia (German Unification was some 60 years in the future). His mother was a Dutch woman who, interestingly, claimed psychic powers and predicted her own death to the hour of day. (Perhaps her son’s predictive talent was gene-based.) His father was Jewish but converted to Protestantism as a condition for practicing law in Prussia, an anti-semantic state. Marx’s father would likely have been pained and angry upon learning that his son Karl later declared that “the Israelite faith is repulsive to me.” Of course, his son’s even later declaration to the effect that religion is the opiate of the people suggests that he felt repulsed by all religious sects or groupings, so at least he did not discriminate, lumping the “Israelite faith” with all others.
Many workers who are practitioners of religion believe that there is some ultimate justice awaiting them in the by-and-by, and one can hope so, since as Marx viewed the scene, capitalists provided no economic or social justice to such workers during their lifetimes here. He was a man of the times – coming of age during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution with its rapid enrichment of the few and mistreatment of labor in the mills and sweatshops of that day (including child labor) which provided Marx a rich background from which to come up with his utopian schemes of sharing the load – and the wealth. Some of his contemporaries were also dismayed at the inhumanity of the age (Robert Owens, Charles Dickens et al.) as well, but expressed their disdain differently, Owens in organizing socialist communities based on communal sharing and, of course, Dickens, a giant in literature with his Oliver and David Copperfield. Marx apparently failed to note Owens’ serial failure in setting up successful socialist communities, otherwise he might have concluded that his own loosely structured model, while great in theory, would not work out in practice.
Marx was stateless most of his life. Having given up his Prussian citizenship and having been expelled from several other European countries as a radical journalist and political activist, he finally wound up in England at age 31, never to leave. However, England refused him citizenship, so he was stateless for the last 34 years of his life. He never held an academic post. His doctorate was in ancient philosophy, of all things, and hardly a springboard for his radical views of the reorganization of society.
Marx was not a well man and was broke most of the time, which may have contributed to his choice to be a contrarian and revolutionary. He suffered all his life from rotten teeth, a malfunctioning liver, piles and extremely painful boils. He died in 1883 at age 65, probably as a result of overwork, tuberculosis and grief at the death of his daughter Jenny, who died short of age 40. How broke was he? Three of his children died at birth or in infancy, and when one, Franziska, passed away, we are told that “he had to spend the day of her funeral running around, seeking money to pay the undertaker.” He also once commented that nobody had ever written so much about money whole possessing so little. It was capitalism that finally came to his financial rescue via Engels, son of a wealthy Manchester factory owner. He was then able to vacate the tiny apartments and slum neighborhoods of London.
Marx was, surprisingly, not always a “Marxist.” Influenced by Hegel and five years before writing the Communist Manifesto, he was found “advocating the use of the army to suppress a communist workers’ uprising.” Communist ideas, he wrote, were genuinely dangerous and could “defeat our intelligence, conquer our sentiments.” This does not sound like the fiery journalist who later was for street fighting, revolution, overthrow etc. that we associate with him. Indeed he was hardly the first German to seek armed force to put down worker revolts. More than three centuries earlier, Martin Luther, father of Protestantism, publicly advocated the use of the army to put down peasants’ revolts. It would have been a stretch for Luther to thereafter be in favor of the revolts he had just advised to be put down by force. Such a glaring inconsistency was apparently no impediment for Marx the anti-communist and Marx the pro-communist. It was not his only inconsistency. This mean old communist loved children.
During the revolutionary decade of the 1840s, Marx was an “insurgent revolutionary; editing in brash, subversive style in the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany.” He failed and needed to leave town. He thought of sailing to America but was unable to raise the ship fare, so instead he went to England in 1849 at age 31, ending his nation-jumping for the last time. The most ferocious critic of industrial capitalism was now in the place where it all started. One can only wonder what the course of American economic history would look like had he been able to raise the ship fare and come to America (where the Industrial Revolution was just taking hold at the time). Perhaps the “Gilded Age” and even the Civil War would not have happened. Who can know? Alternative historians could have a field day in writing “what if?” history with the given that there was a real Marxist in our midst. Had the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy (in his alcoholic haze) been around, he finally would have had an admitted communist to persecute with “loyalty oaths” and other such made-for-TV absurdities in an era in which 11 out of 10 State Department employees were hardened communists.
So was Marx a Marxist and a communist? Certainly. What is his current standing, i.e., is he still relevant or just some old historical artifact that capitalists drag out when they need a horrid alternative to trumpet worse than the one they are visiting on us now with their near-Industrial Revolution treatment of their workers and the rest of us? Can greed be voluntarily curtailed short of civil commotion? Would a different system be preferable or can we adjust this one to make it work for all? You be the judge.
I am personally of the view that any economic system devised by a given society can fail if unadjusted to meet that day’s problems as they come to the fore, such (as of today) overpopulation, automation, environmental disasters-in-waiting, wage inequality, unchecked greed, political favoritism and the like. That list of potential systems that could fail includes communism, capitalism and even that of social democracies. We cannot treat today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Thus communism won’t work, but capitalism (left unattended) won’t work, either, especially with the now Piketty- identified r > g setting forth the inherent contradiction of capitalism as a system.
Since “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is baked into our system, then we need a new oven – and bakers with post-Industrial Age mindsets. Marx had no such opportunity, living and dying within the Industrial Age, so his solutions of that day are largely artifacts of history which have scant if any application to today’s problems (though many of the problems he identified persist today but differing in time, circumstance and consequence).
We need a new oven and new or elucidated bakers if our system is to survive and, unfortunately, such choice is a political decision. We must nevertheless get on with it because this is not just a current issue or political gotcha fad; we’re talking survival as a viable nation state, and that is serious by any standard. GERALD E


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