Dear Karl Marx, happy birthday from The New York Times
Karl Marx will be celebrating his 200th birthday on 5 May (as much as you can celebrate in hell), but “The New York Times” opinion pages have already presented the Bearded Prophet of Communism with a big birthday cake with 200 burning red candles on it in the form of an op-ed “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You were right!” by Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, which is across the border from one of the most tragic and longest running Marx-inspired experiments in inhumanity. Barker is also, apparently, the author of a novel “Marx Returns” (“combines historical fiction, psychological mystery, philosophy, differential calculus and extracts from Marx and Engels’s collected works to reimagine the life and times of one of history’s most exceptional minds” – and here I thought it was zombie fiction).
Barker’s “You were right!” birthday card contains such pearl as:
In 2002, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared at a conference I attended in London that Marx had become the philosopher of the middle class. What did he mean? I believe he meant that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis — that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit — is correct. Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever.
Which tells you all you need to know about the quality of “educated liberal opinion” or, alternatively, that one shouldn’t extrapolate onto the broader society from a sample of philosophers and sociologists.
Elsewhere, Barker takes a few words to acknowledge the giant elephant in a tiny prison room:
The idea of the classless and stateless society would come to define both Marx’s and Engels’s idea of communism, and of course the subsequent and troubled history of the Communist “states” (ironically enough!) that materialized during the 20th century. There is still a great deal to be learned from their disasters, but their philosophical relevance remains doubtful, to say the least.
Disregard the pyramids of corpses – they don’t really matter because the philosophy is still so cool! Never mind the practice, what does the theory say?
Of course, for everyone except philosophers it’s the 100 million dead that are important – or “relevant” – in assessing Marxism. I absolutely agree that “there is still a great deal to be learned from their [the communist states’] disaster”, not the least that there are many seemingly intelligent and tenured people teaching the future generations who actually have learned nothing from history. But why learn from history when you have the philosophy, which, like religious belief, can never be sullied or disproved?
If Marxism was tested on animals, the whole experiment would be shut down in a blink of an eye by the social media outrage. People and whole societies somehow seem more expendable. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, we’ve heard a lot from people who have broken hell of a lot of eggs but never managed to produce an omelette – or, to use the favourite escape clause, a real omelette.
Marx’s ideas have been tried in dozens and dozens of places over the past 150 years. In no case have they produced anything but misery built on top of a mass grave. To Marxists it says that their idol’s insights are right it’s just that the implementation sucks. To everyone else it says that perhaps there is something wrong with the actual theory. The hundred million lives snuffed by the Marxist dreams in the 20th century, hundreds of millions literally and metaphorically imprisoned, persecuted, and subjected to treatment that would make the 19th century capitalists blush and the ancien regime autocrats retch, the whole societies put through meat grinders and countries ruined – never mind, next time it will be different! The sad thing about people like Barker is that another 100 million lives lost to a holocaust of class war would do nothing to disabuse them of the continuing philosophical relevance of the underlying theory.
But maybe it’s not even the ideas, it’s the attitude:
The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.
Herein lies a grain of truth: Marxism lives today because the temptation to “critique” the existing reality without being able to offer an alternative that is both better and working remains as strong as ever. And not just any criticism but “the ruthless criticism” – criticism which, as Marx himself so eloquently writes, is not afraid to stick it to “the mighty” and equally unconcerned about the devastation (“the results”) it produces.
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.
We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.
The working class has proved to be a great disappointment to Marxists and so now it is up to the wokeing class to carry on the flag of revolution. Class war is old and busted; gender and racial wars are new and hot. Lumpen-intelligencia will now be the vanguard of the struggle against the ruling class (or the ruling gender or race or sexuality). Somehow, clutching at whatever straws we can, we’ll keep trying to tear the whole thing down. Ruthlessly. This, in the end, is the pure refined essence of Marxism: it’s all about the rage, the destruction, and the will to power. It takes the purgatory that is, promises heaven but delivers hell. But that’s OK, because the hated purgatory is no more, and one person’s hell is another person’s heaven.
Marx himself wrote that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. The Marxist practice has been hellish, the Marxist philosophy is wrong, but the Marxist attitude lives on. What started as a critique of Fichte is now just a Fuck You to the world.
P.S. At the Daily Chrenk we celebrate Marx’s birthday differently: