I Preferred Groucho…

I know visitors to Slugger tend to shy away from articles with deliberately provocative opening statements, but I’m going to do it anyway: Marx Was Right!

Well, how could he not be? Especially when you can see for yourself the evident reasonableness in his best-known pronouncements:

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.

I don’t have a photograph. I’d give you my footprints, but they’re upstairs in my socks.

I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.


OK, so that was a bit of a cheap prank of quoting the moustachio-ed and bespectacled American comedian rather than the German philosopher, but I have to grab attention somehow… Moreover, on today, the bicentenary of the man’s birth, it is worth thinking a little about his long and complicated legacy (Karl’s, not Groucho’s…).

Even the most cursory view of Karl Marx’s career can reveal many ironies. The man who held the upper middle class (the Bourgeoisie) responsible for the exploitation of the world’s industrial workers (the Proletariat) had identifiable bourgeois figures as among his closest admirers (chief among them, of course, the factory owner’s son Friedrich Engels). The man who argued that such economic exploitation was the cause of these workers’ impoverished conditions lived most of his adult life in largely self-inflicted destitution, as this trained lawyer wandered from one exile to another eking out a living as a not-very-often employed freelance journalist while working on his economic theories. Indeed, Marx’s own mother once wrote him a letter in which she pleaded ‘I wish you would make some capital instead of just writing about it.’ Additionally, one of the last places in the world where Marx expected a socialist revolution to happen was Russia. Finally, the man of whom a million statues and images have been made all around the world over the last century or so was a relatively self-effacing character, and who would be horrified at how he has been deified by his followers, were he alive today. (Marx himself remarked at one point: ‘All I know is that I am no Marxist.’)

It almost goes without saying that it is possible to come to different conclusions, when seeing and analysing poverty and exploitation for yourself, on what to do about it. The work of George Orwell and the Rowntree brothers prove that. It is easy to point out where Marx went wrong with his theories. The most obvious is the blind assumption that exploited workers would automatically feel a natural affinity with their counterparts in other countries (‘The workers of the world have no fatherland’; ‘Workers of all lands unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains’). As Orwell (who considered himself a socialist to the end of his days) pointed out, patriotism will always have a much stronger tug of loyalty than international class solidarity – or internationalism in general, for that matter.

Not only that, but Marx proved to be over-optimistic (to say the least) about how easily a purely communist society would work. According to his theories, after the Bourgeoisie had been overthrown, the Proletariat would reshape society and take democratic control, eventually replacing production for profit with production for need, in a centrally planned system, while managers would be elected, and production integrated with education. Time and time again in the century after his death, government after government that called itself communist would conveniently forget about the supposed end goal. After the obvious state brutality, the most shocking aspect of the toppling communist governments in Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989 was the revelation of how the various Communist Party apparatchiks had been shamelessly living it up in their personal country houses, while their people were struggling to get by. As Andy Hamilton’s Satan tells Marx in Hell in his radio sitcom Old Harry’s Game

Well, it’s your own fault, Karl, for designing a system that relies on trusting humans not to exploit one another… You know what they’re calling your book now? Das Krapital!

And let’s not forget, either, the undeniable body count piled up by governments claiming to follow Marx’s theories. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat that Marx had promised turned out, all too often, to be a dictatorship of the likes of Matyas Rakosi, Enver Hoxha, Pol Pot and Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s reckoned that Stalin’s combined purges accounted for around 30 million lives, while over 60 million perished in Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Even before Stalin took full control, though, there were plenty of loud hints that things in Russia were not going completely according to Marx’s plan – in the forms, for example, of the 1921 Kronstadt Massacre, when over a thousand striking workers and sailors (precisely the people who had helped the Bolsheviks to power four years earlier) were slaughtered, and of the excesses of the Cheka (secret police), who were just as willing to practise torture and extrajudicial killings as the Tsarist Okhrana that they had replaced. Not only that, but a depressing number of left-wingers outside these countries (for example, Eric Hobsbawm) were all too willing either to turn a blind eye to these atrocities or else play them down. As the socialist comedian Mark Steel put it…

For years, Communist Party members were like women with awful boyfriends who refuse to believe what everybody says about them. All their mates were screaming ‘Can’t you see?! They’re starving peasants and invading Hungary!’ and the Communist Party member would go ‘I know, but you don’t see the gentle side, like I do!’

It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that right-wing governments the world over, in the wake of Russia’s revolution, wouldn’t be slow in repeatedly invoking the horrors of Stalin, Mao and their comrades to justify heavy-handed crackdowns (and in some cases, mass murder, as happened in Indonesia in the 1960s and many South American countries in the ’70s) on Communists in their countries, and frequently on the flimsiest of legal grounds.

It is tempting to dismiss wholesale Marx’s thinking as a total waste of time, but to do so is to ignore how popular the movements inspired by his memory continued to be, long after Stalin’s death. The then Guardian columnist (now Jeremy Corbyn’s chief spin doctor) Seumus Milne opined in a review of Robert Service’s history of Communism in 2007…

[A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.

And that was just a year before the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, triggering the latest Great Recession. Small wonder, then, that from that downturn onwards some people started appearing wearing T-shirts with a picture of Marx, and the words ‘I warned you this would happen.’ Suddenly, the law student-turned-impoverished-economist had become relevant again. QI creators John Lloyd and John Mitchinson put it best in their Book Of The Dead (published 2009):

[T]hough Marx the man, with his boils and his beer, the revolutionary who never led a revolution, the historian of capital who couldn’t organise his own finances, is long gone, his analysis is more relevant than ever. Globalisation, rapacious corporations, the decline of high culture, the triumph of consumerism: it’s all there in Marx. Almost no one today calls himself a Marxist… but we have all taken on board his ideas. In a British radio poll in 2005 a shock result voted him the nation’s favourite thinker. Perhaps he did not, after all, discover the hidden laws of history, but his work – and his life – show that you can’t make sense of human existence without first understanding its economics.

It’s also worth thinking about the context in which Marx’s writings were originally taken seriously. Anyone familiar with Irish history knows that the worse off people are, the more likely they are to be attracted to new and untried ideas about reorganizing their society. Even Marx’s most hardened right-wing critics can hardly deny that working and living conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant there was a ready and attentive market for him and his ideas in the years after his death.

Two centuries after his birth, however many attempts there have been to put Karl Marx’s theories into practice, there is, if anything, even greater inequality, alienation and exploitation than there was in his lifetime. According to a report commissioned last year by Credit Suisse, around 46% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of just 0.7% of its population, while around 3.5 billion people subsist on less than $10,000 a year. As long as such inequality, alienation and exploitation continue, and continue unchecked, there will keep on being more such attempts at a Marxist remedy for society’s problems. The ultimate problem, however, is that the perfect, exploitation-free system of running any society is yet to be designed. As the old Mexican joke has it, under Capitalism, man exploits man; under Communism, the process is reversed. Like I said earlier, I think I preferred Groucho…