When Karl Marx was twenty-four, a contemporary wrote of him: “Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person…and you have Dr. Marx.” Marx was not one of those brilliant young men who fail to live up to their promise. He produced the most powerful, coherent, and influential secular system of ideas ever devised to explain man’s past, analyze his present, and predict his future.
What he “fused” together was a dialectical theory of historical stages, a materialist theory of history (in which the struggle of classes replaces Hegel’s struggle of ideas in humanity’s ascent), an economic and moral critique of capitalist civilization (embodied in the exploitation and alienation theses), an economic demonstration that capitalism was bound to collapse (because of its contradictions), a call to revolutionary action, and a prediction (perhaps more an assurance) that communism would be the next—and final—historical stage. His system’s most developed, though incomplete, expression is to be found in his great book Das Kapital, in which the theory of class struggle is linked to the problems of a profit-making economy in such a way as to bring about the collapse of capitalism and its supercession by socialism. Since Marx died in 1883, Marxism has collapsed as a system. What is left are disconnected fragments of a once-coherent design.
First to be discredited, at least in the developed world, was the prediction that capitalism would implode; with that went the collapse of the revolutionary political project. Capitalism has had periods of crisis but has failed to produce mass pauperization; it could be reformed without self-contradiction. Apart from this, the appeal of communism was dimmed by the economic inefficiency and terroristic methods of the actual Communist regimes established in Russia and China. The dynamism of capitalism and decrepitude of the USSR finally put paid to Marx’s theory of history: there was no dialectic in capitalism which leads to its supercession by socialism.
What was left from the debris was, first, Marx’s moral critique of capitalist civilization, which was by no means distinctive to him. In the 1960s, the “Young Marx” of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts was hailed as the philosopher of alienation, often in a strained union with Freud. Historical materialism—the idea that “it is not consciousness that determine life, but life that determines consciousness”—also retains its fascination, though it is no longer linked to any scheme of historical stages. Marxist phrases have continued to be serviceable for any group anywhere which feels itself “excluded” by existing power structures. His essay “On the Jewish Question” is predictably topical. Following the collapse of communism, the Marx of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 has been revived as a prescient critic of globalization. The shifting interpretations of Marx’s legacy have faithfully tracked shifts in the demand for Marx’s ideas, thus seemingly vindicating his own belief that societies use the ideas they need, rather than need the ideas they use.
Francis Wheen …