Karl Marx was born 200 years ago next week and his ideas are very much back in the mainstream, as capitalism’s massive failures since the fall of the Soviet Union that led to a global Gilded Age have given a whole lot of people good reason to revisit them. Because in the end, Marx was right about a lot of things, as this New York Times op-ed suggests:
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.
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.
To cite Marx, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
The transition to a new society where relations among people, rather than capital relations, finally determine an individual’s worth is arguably proving to be quite a task. Marx, as I have said, does not offer a one-size-fits-all formula for enacting social change. But he does offer a powerful intellectual acid test for that change. On that basis, we are destined to keep citing him and testing his ideas until the kind of society that he struggled to bring about, and that increasing numbers of us now desire, is finally realized.
I know I can’t wait for our liberal commenters to spend the next 5 hours making the incredibly original point that Mao and Lenin were not good guys. Thanks, who knew. None of this is to say that Marx should be avoided or is irrelevant. It means that certain strains of Marxism are bankrupt. It does not mean that Marxism is bankrupt.