The Bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth (May 5, 1818) has come and gone without much fanfare, except in the People’s Republic of China.
It’s not that the founder of Communism is forgotten or disrespected in America (a fate that befell him in the former Soviet Union and in North Korea), but that he is old news here—not to speak of a racist embarrassment.
No one seems to pay any mind to the quaint old definition of socialism as state ownership of the major means of production. The ever-reliable PBS (Progressive BS) News Hour asked in 2017 “Is socialism in the United States having a moment?” The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation followed up with a poll of younger Americans which found more support for socialism than capitalism, a distressing outcome albeit one rooted in their ignorance.
But the limitations of such approaches underscore the need to return to the primary source, Karl Marx. Socialism is the inevitable, to use Marxist language, conclusion of a more fundamental or, in its true sense, radical argument. It is here that the battle must be engaged.
These key points of the Marxist critique of the West and America in particular are: the mockery of religion, the denial that individual rights are central for political well-being, and the assertion that historical blinders prevent truth being knowable. These premises lead inevitably to “scientific” socialism and Marx’s subsequent strategy of appearing alternately as Mother Teresa or as Napoleon—whatever works, charity or brutality, as appeals to the simple or the savage. We are all too familiar with Marxism in practice—the former Soviet Union seems too ashamed to bring it up even to condemn it—so let us look at Marx’s theorizing, which is even more evil than those doctrines as applied.
The most appropriate text for reflecting on Marx is not the Communist Manifesto but the lesser-known “Theses on Feuerbach,” a two-page meditation on 11 aphorisms or pithy observations written when he was in his mid-20s, around 1845. Feuerbach was an influential philosopher who speculated on the worldly origins of religious belief, even to the point of pantheism.
As with many of his other early writings, the daring “Theses” are much livelier and captivating than the notorious and ponderous Communist Manifesto (30 pages long that feels like 300) and his later writings such as the incomplete Capital.
In less than 600 words Marx makes five fundamental points for attacking all previous thinking about politics: Two involve the need to destroy the authority both of religion and of philosophy—the two major sources of transcendence of ordinary life that provide meaning and guidance. The other three are about need for the destruction of the family and the subsequent combination of negating individual rights and affirming socialism as the goal of human history.
Marx is at bottom about destruction, and the form of destruction can range from mockery to massacres, of unenlightened thinking and of hostile people. He offers a vision of a redeemed humanity, bereft of the corruptions of capitalism (and other attributes of bourgeois civilization), especially Christianity. Heaven can be wrested away from the credulous and created by men on earth.
The most often cited thesis from the Feuerbach meditation is the last, XI: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” A version is on the pediment of his gravestone in London, below his more famous, “Workers of all lands, unite.”
Though it may be deceptively and rhetorically seductive, the assertion that previous philosophers have not influenced history is preposterous. John Locke, with his concept of the social contract formed by natural rights, including the right of revolution, influenced the Declaration of Independence and thus America. Earlier, ancient Greek philosophy made science possible by distinguishing between reality and appearances of reality. The Enlightenment philosophers further transformed science. These interpretations of the human world, spread by their students, brought about revolutionary changes that lasted long after the philosophers’ lifetimes. In the Manifesto Marx would declare that “The ruling ideas of each age have always been the ideas of its ruling class.” It is a hallucination for Marx to imply he was the first thinker to bring about change, let alone change for the better.
But Marx’s initial and major focus is not against philosophy but religion, which exercises more influence over society. His first eight theses against Feuerbach radicalize that religious thinker’s insistence on the earthly origins of transcendent religion. Marx wants to preserve the striving of religion, its infinite longing, and even anti-Jewish elements he sees in Christianity (its “dirty Jewish” [schmutzig-jüdischen] attributes), but for his own socialist purposes.
Thesis III, for example, anticipates the disappearance of the “bourgeois family” in the Communist Manifesto: “Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.” Destroying the “earthly family” in “theory and in practice” could mean, for example, the brutal Chinese Communist policies toward families wanting more than one child.
Moreover, Feuerbach ignores the power of socio-economic forces. Against a society of isolated individuals (and of course their assertion of “rights”), Marx offers this contrast in thesis X: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Marx’s new materialism (the doctrine that reality exists in matter, not ideas, mathematics, or God) is the social or socialized humanity of the future. It comes about through the dynamics of history and a growing consciousness of the workers or proletariat. Marx wants his scientific philosophy to have the spirit of religion.
Incidentally, this perspective of “social humanity” or world-wide socialism makes reference to equality superfluous, because the only sense equality makes in political philosophy is equality of individual, natural rights. Thus Marx denounces talk about rights as bourgeois claptrap. Family, rights, religion—they all result from false consciousness. The so-called individual reflects “the ensemble of the social relations.” The role of the leaders of society becomes more important than ever, for they shape every aspect of society: therefore, “it is essential to educate the educator himself.”
Perhaps the best education Marx, the would-be educator, might have had comes from a contemporary defender of the working class who too seldom is recognized as such: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” We see in the exception of the family the key difference from Marx.
This becomes even more clear in the next sentence of this March 21, 1864 message to a New York labor union:
Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.
Thus wrote Abraham Lincoln, liberator of slaves and defender of not the bourgeoisie but of the natural law protecting family and property.
This fight continues. The enemies of Lincoln and the American founding keep the Marx project alive. The family comes under more insidious attack than ever, the administrative state tramples individual rights, historical inevitability declares borders as bygone, socialism in the form of collective consciousness lords over individual freedom, and philosophy and religion meet with blinkered ignorance, at best, and more likely ridicule, horror, and disgust. If Marx’s Bicentennial birthday is ignored, his contemporary epigones know their man would realize he had to be passed over, in favor of even more radical ideas. After all, the point is to change the world.
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