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Marx Still Reigns Supreme. But Why?

This week, with the global celebration of May Day and with the ongoing protests on the nation’s college campuses, it is worth remembering that the man who largely inspired both was a hateful, intellectually shallow misanthrope, remembered by history and admired by jesters and dupes largely because of his odiousness.

The First of May is celebrated by socialists around the world, not specifically because of Karl Marx but to honor the anarchists hanged for the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886. Nevertheless, this “International Labor Day” has very much become a Marxist tradition, formerly commemorated with parades and ceremonies by the Soviet Bloc nations and still very much acclaimed by those who still revere Marx and his communist ideology.

Marx is likewise celebrated these days in the pro-Hamas camps on America’s college campuses. The ideology of struggle expressed by the protesters is very much in the Marxist tradition. Reams of Marxist literature have been collected at various abandoned/disbanded protest sites around the country, most notably on the UCLA campus. And, of course, Marxist organizations and agitators have been front and center throughout the demonstrations. As the inimitable Mike Gonzales has repeatedly stated, noting that Marxism is always at the forefront of these types of protests: “The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution.”

The question is why. Why is Karl Marx, of all people, so adored and admired by the world’s angry and disillusioned youth? He was but one of hundreds of thousands of 19th-century communists and but one of hundreds of leftist intellectuals and theorists of his era. Why him?

The fact of the matter is that Marx was a loathsome person who hated nearly everyone and everything. He was aggressively lazy and didn’t have any knowledge of business, capitalism, or even any connection to the working class. As the late, great Paul Johnson noted, “the only member of the working class that he ever knew at all well, his one real contact with the ‘pro­letariat,’ was his household maid, Helene Demuth.” And so concerned was he with her plight that he forced himself on her, got her pregnant, denied paternity of her child, convinced Engels to pretend to be the father, and only met the child on one occasion.

More to the point, Marx was known by his friends, contemporaries, and even admirers to be a crackpot. Some of his erstwhile allies mocked his ideology as a quasi-religious attempt to replace Christian morality with something strikingly similar (Max Stirner). Some admired his ideas “in theory” but knew that they had no chance whatsoever to work “in praxis” (Ferdinand Lassalle). And still others candidly acknowledged that his economic schemes were borderline insane. Writing more than a half-century later, the renowned American leftist literary critic Edmund Wilson conceded that Marx’s foundational work, Kapital, “contains a treatise on economics, a his­tory of industrial development, and an inspired tract for the times; and the morality, which is part of the time suspended in the interests of scientific objectivity, is no more self-consistent than the economics is consistently scientific or the his­tory undistracted by the exaltation of apocalyptic vision.”

In short, Marx’s theories were a mess—and everyone knew it, even before World War I proved them so and forced a full-scale “revision” of the entire movement.

So again, why Marx? Why and how did this angry, odious, insufferable fantasist become the intellectual lodestar for the global left?

The answer is complicated, obviously, but can largely be broken down into three primary contributing factors.

First, Marx’s obnoxiousness proved to be an advantage as much as a liability. Marx was a bully. Indeed, he was among the most practiced and skilled bullies in the world. Anyone who dared to contradict him or to offer a competing theory of leftism was an open target for aggressive and hostile rebuttal. Marx attacked nearly all his one-time friends, including Stirner, Weitling, Bauer, and Feuerbach. He attacked the utopian socialists who preceded him. He attacked the anarchists who followed him. He attacked everyone, and he attacked them viciously and, for the most part, effectively. He successfully bullied all his potential competitors for intellectual supremacy of the left into submission or exile, often self-imposed.

Second, Marx was a “revolutionary” in the sense that he advocated violent overthrow of the existing regime. Whereas many of his contemporaries were mere theorists or incrementalists, Marx favored bold, dramatic, society-transforming action. Indeed, he believed that a violent, destructive, and bloody revolution was a necessary component of the communist transformation.

Needless to say, such violent fantasies often appeal to the young and disaffected. Although most of Marx’s contemporaries favored the incremental establishment of their ideology, those who were especially antisocial and disgruntled with the status quo found his illusions of brutal heroism cathartic and enticing. Much the same is true today, as it was in the period between Marx’s and our own…

Which brings us to the third reason Marx is so revered today.

Among those who admired Marx’s call for bloody revolution was a singular psychopath who, when he was merely 17, saw his brother Sasha hanged by the Czar, who was exiled to Siberia when he was 25, and who spent much of the rest of his adulthood bouncing around and being thrown out of various countries in Europe for advocating violence in Marx’s name. That psychopath—known as Lenin—would eventually be given safe passage back to Russia by the German government, who rightfully anticipated that he would end Russia’s participation in World War I. Almost immediately after his famous arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, Lenin began consolidating power. In time, he would become the world’s first prolific mass murderer—thereby proving Marx’s augury of widespread bloodshed correct. He would also found, in March 1919, the Communist International (the Comintern), which he would use to place spies and Marxist advocates among the labor leaders in nearly every major nation on earth.

The rest, as they say, is history—ugly, brutal, repetitious, and painfully stupid history. Karl Marx was a crackpot with a shockingly poor understanding of history and economics. The same can be said of his multitudes of modern-day disciples. If they were otherwise, clearly, they wouldn’t be his disciples.

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: Monument to Karl Marx, installed in the city of Kaliningrad (Russia) on Karl Marx Street. Photographed in January 2020.