Marx bicentennial

Karl Marx’s two hundredth birthday was celebrated on May 5 — at least, it was celebrated in a few places such as Marx’s home town of Trier, where there is reportedly a thriving trade in Marx-themed tourist tschotchkes; and in China, still a communist country, at least from its own perspective.

In most of the United States, Marx’s birthday was studiously ignored. There were a few newspaper editorials (remember newspapers?), most of which, I suspect, assumed the gently mocking tone of the editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which wound up concluding that Marx was wrong: “Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east.”

Social media was far less restrained in its open criticism of Marx; when philosophy professor Brian Leiter posted birthday greetings to Marx on Twitter, both he and Marx were, not surprisingly, viciously attacked, and to a lesser extent, viciously defended.

For most people in the United States, the main thing to know about Karl Marx is that he has been proved wrong. Communist states murdered tens of millions of people, communism couldn’t compete with capitalism, and since 1989 when the Soviet Union imploded, communism and Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Was Karl Marx wrong? It depends on how you read him. If you accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marx (which most Americans do without questioning it), an interpretation in which the Soviet Union had the only true interpretation of Karl Marx, then you have a pretty strong argument that Marx was in fact wrong.

As for me, I was introduced to Marx through the Frankfurt School, which offered a substantially different interpretation. The Frankfurt School pointed out that Marx demonstrated the ways capitalism causes alienation, and the ways women are subjugated under capitalism. The Frankfurt School also made it clear that reading Marx seriously required intellectual freedom that only came from disaffiliating with existing communist parties. While I’m critical of the Frankfurt School, it was the Frankfurt School helped me learn how to be critical — critical of economic systems that cause harm; critical of social structures in which a few people dominate everyone else; and critical of any belief in supernatural forces that are supposed to save us.

I’ve found this last kind of criticism — the criticism of belief in supernatural forces that will supposedly save us — to be very powerful. Whenever I hear that something is going to save us, if we would just put our trust in it, I get very skeptical. A lot of Americans want us to have unquestioning belief in the motto “In God we trust”; but I’m very skeptical that some big Daddy God is going to save us from infidel Muslim terrorists, unemployment, or whatever the bogeyman of the month happens to be.

And most Americans, including all our political leaders, have an unquestioning belief in a supernatural force called “The Free Market” that will solve all our problems. I find this even less believable than the idea that a Daddy God is going to solve all our problems.

Marx’s writings have distinct limitations, and we should read him critically. Some of the best criticism of Marx may be found in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where Piketty points out that because Marx did not have access to big data sets, Marx simply couldn’t be very accurate.

Despite those limitations, Marx’s writings taught me how to be critical of the society in which I live. Things do not have to be the way they are now. History shows that things can change. We do not have to put up with injustice. That’s the fundamental message of Marx, one that is still as fresh today as when he was writing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, and the Theses on Feuerbach which end with the statement:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Happy birthday, Karl.