Marxism, both as a political ideology and as a social theory, ultimately derives nearly entirely from the Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet of roughly 12,000 words in the German language published in February 1848. This pamphlet allegedly was authored jointly by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was prefaced by a short, untitled, and extremely misleading Introduction.
Whatever was going to become true in the long-term future as a consequence of this original publication of the Communist Manifesto, it was certainly not true that the specter of communism was haunting Europe in February 1848. Certainly, 1848 was to be a year of revolutions. In Austria, Clemens von Metternich had announced that he was sustaining “a rotten edifice.” King Frederick William IV of Russia summoned Horwegh, the revolutionary poet, to salute “a worthy opponent” and a man of the future. Most observers also agreed with Marx that the coming revolutions would have a social cause and/or an economic cause.
And so they had. But it was not the cause that Marx had foreseen. Whereas he attributed the forthcoming revolutions to capitalism, it would be nearer to the truth to argue that they were caused rather by the lack of capitalism. Apart from Russia, which had already begun to suffer the same new developments as were occurring in some European countries farther to the west, there were two countries that escaped serious revolutionary disturbances. These were the United Kingdom and Belgium, the two countries in which capitalist industrialization had gone the furthest.
Essentially, Marx was neither a philosopher nor a social scientist but rather a prophet. In his own famous later words, he proclaimed, “Philosophers have only given different interpretations of the world; the task is to change it.” The Marxist system began as a propagandist myth, although Marx himself later aspired to make a substantial contribution to both economics and social science. Every argument of the Communist Manifesto was designed to produce an effect—not to interpret the world but rather to change it. The document that the Introduction was actually introducing purported to be the manifesto of the Communist Party. No such party existed at that time, and one object of the manifesto was to call it into existence. Nor had “Communists of various nationalities assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto,” as was stated on the first page. It had been written by Marx alone, without the actual and immediate assistance of even its alleged coauthor Engels.
Nor was the specter of communism haunting all or any part of Europe at the time of that first publication of the Communist Manifesto. Its true purpose was rather to produce that specter and thereby to bring about a future period during which communism actually would haunt Europe and other continents as well.
It is remarkable, and should have been remarked far more often than it was, that both substantial and even increasing numbers of professing social scientists, even during the last quarter of the 20th century, still proclaimed their own attachment to the putative theories and methods of a 19th-century predecessor and that there was apparently only one particular predecessor able to inspire such widespread and continuing devotion—representing a sort of “cult of personality.”
This is a phenomenon that should make anyone seriously committed to inquiry both suspicious of and curious about Marxism. One discouraging but possibly instructive parallel is with the applied pseudoscience of psychoanalysis, where one hears first of the great divide between Freudians and Jungians and then of further faction fights among rival disciples of those two founders. In the social sciences, however, such party loyalty has been mainly, if not only, to one particular very un-Victorian Victorian sage, namely Marx.
Still more particular, and still more deserving of remark, is the fact that the devotion extended beyond case, all of the author’s works on every subject, as well as his political policies, were treated by his followers with similar respect and taken to be similarly authoritative.
One needs to contrast the social sciences with the natural sciences and, above all, with the standard setting paradigm science of physics. There, not even the greatest contributors attract this kind of posthumous partisan devotion. Their contributions are quietly added to the ever-expanding corpus of at least provisionally established truth, and their names in the still current literature and textbooks appear solely in stock descriptions of eponymous principles, laws, or effects. Even in biology, the enormous contribution of Darwin—work that Engels, in his address at Marx’s graveside, dared to compare to that of Marx in social science—has not inspired loyalties of the same sort. Although at least the vast majority of biologists currently subscribe to the neo-Darwinian synthetic theory of evolution, no one now takes all of Darwin’s works as unquestionably authoritative even in biology, much less in anything else. As for the incomparable Sir Isaac Newton, most of his writings have never been, and most likely never will be, published at all. They dealt not with physics but rather with religion and were so grossly heretical that they had to be suppressed by Newton’s friends.
In their day, two of the most notorious adherents to this particular Marxist cult of personality were Gyorgy Lukaes and C. Wright Mills. It was, of course, Lukaes who once insisted that the validity of the supposedly distinctive method of Marx could, and should, survive the falsification of all the findings thereby yielded. Mills, calling himself “a plain Marxist” and commending, above all, the method of Marx, apparently was equally reluctant to judge by results. Mills, understandably unwilling or, more likely, unable to offer a clear account of what that putative method was, proceeded to list the 17 “most important propositions of classical Marxism.” With one exception, all of these important propositions of classical Marxism were then dismissed as false, unclear, imprecise, misleading, unfruitful, careless, confused, or quite clearly wrong. Proposition 11, the sole exception to this absurdity of errors, was correctly put down as a tautological truism. So, at the end of the day, the plain Marxism of Mills was simply his invincibly stubborn commitment to what only a Greek could, without affectation, describe as Marxist praxis. He continued to avow his total solidarity with “the new world” extending from China and the Soviet Union to Cuba.
The significance of such stubbornly blinkered commitments has been fully appreciated by several of the most well-girded critics of Marxism. Lewis Feur, for instance, insisted that the Mosaic myth is “the invariable ingredient of all revolutionary ideologies” and then proceeded to point out similarities between the conversion experiences of both modern revolutionaries and more traditionally religious revolutionaries. Sydney Hook often argued, “Marxism today signifies an ideology in Marx’s original sense of that term suggesting more of a religious than of a strictly scientific, rational outlook on society.” As Hook well knew, the apocalyptic escatology, the utopian historicism that has been of such decisive importance in winning converts to Marxism, was originally derived by what Marx was pleased to call a philosophical analysis, from the Hegelian secularization of a Christian philosophy of history. The lifelong atheism of the “founding fathers” (Marx and Engels) irrecoverably deprived such reassurances of their only sensible foundation—the promises of a provident Creator.
The second thing to emphasize is that there were, during the second half of the 20th century, many remarkable similarities between defensive expedients favored by contemporary Marxist intellectuals and the maneuvers performed by apologists for the Christian religion. One of the most ancient, as well as the most outrageous, was that summed up in the patristic slogan Credo ut intelligam [I believe in order that I may understand]. A sacred system is immunized against hostile criticism by insisting that the necessary prior understanding is vouchsafed only to the totally committed.
When Bertrand Russell returned from visiting the Soviet Union in 1921 to write The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, he became perhaps the first to describe what was not yet labeled Marxism-Leninism as a new secular Islam. Since then, several critics have argued that what Marx and Engels, and their 20th-century followers, loved to call “scientific socialism” is a religious system rather than a scientific theory and that claims to be scientific are as baseless and abandoned, for the same propaganda reasons, as those of Christian science.
Having seen how Marxism started from a barrage of falsehoods and pretensions, it is well to see how asserted, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” This part concluded with the claim, “Thus was this man of science.” In the second part, Engels spoke of Marx “as a revolutionary working tirelessly for the enrichment of the poor and the emancipation of the oppressed.”
In an often quoted rebuke to Thomas Malthus, Marx wrote, “A man who tries to accommodate science to a standpoint not derived from science itself, but from outside interests that are alien to science itself, such a man I call gemein [cheap].”It was, nevertheless, a charge of which Marx himself was systematically guilty in respect of what was, for him, the most fundamental issue.
Look first at Das Kapital, the magnum opus that was supposed to provide the long-promised scientific proof for the sweeping historical theses of the Communist Manifesto—proof for its “philosophy of history.” The most fundamental and crucial of these was the immiseration thesis. According to Das Kapital, “The accumulation of wealth at one pole… is at the same time, the accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, and brutalisation at the other.” Faced with the decisive falsification of his crucial contention, Marx simply suppressed the data. Hence, in the first edition of Das Kapital, various available British statistics were given up to 1865 or 1866, but those for the movement of wages stopped at 1850. In the second edition, all of the other runs were brought up-to-date, but that of wage movements still stopped at 1850.
Suppose that we look at the Correspondence, never forgetting that this was subject to at least two systematic prunings before its eventual publication. The Marquis de Vauvenargues once noted that “for the philosopher, clarity is a matter of good faith.” This maxim is equally true for the social scientist. We call into evidence a letter to Engels dated August 15,1857. The letter is especially notable inasmuch as it also reveals that Marx himself intended dialectics to be, as so many readers have found them to be, obfuscatory. Thus, he wrote, “I took the risk of prognosticating in this way as I was compelled to substitute for you as a correspondent at the Tribune….It is possible I may be discredited. But in that case it will still be possible to pull through with the help of a bit of dialectics. It goes without saying that I phrased my forecasts in such a way that I would prove to be right also in the opposite.” So much for Marx the pseudoscientist.
There were Communist ideas and spokesmen for them long before the first publication of the Communist Manifesto. Among these spokesmen were John Lilburne and his Levellers, who generally opposed the “grandees” or officers in Cromwell’s Republican New Model Army during the first phase of the English Civil War during the 17th century. In the various revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels both participated very actively, trying as hard as they could—and this was to a trifling extent—to make them Communist. All of the relevant writings of both Marx and Engels have been published under the name of Marx as The Revolutions of 1848. But the great event of the 19th century that was of most interest to Marx and Engels was the Paris Commune. This, however, was not a Communist revolution, although Marx was to draw many lessons from it. It was a patriotic revolt of the Commune of Paris intended more effectively to organize patriotic defense against the Prussian invaders.
It was not until the 20th century that a revolution led by a Communist Party first achieved state power. This was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which transformed the former Russian Empire of the Tzars into the Soviet Union. Before World War I, there were several at least nominally Marxist Social Democratic parties on the continent of Europe (e.g., in Germany and Italy). But the illegal Russian Marxist Party, led by G. V. Plekhanov, at its 1905 conference split into two factions: the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority). It was the Bolshevik faction, led by V. I. Lenin, that later launched the October Revolution and thereby transformed the former Russian Empire into the now also former Soviet Union. Here it should perhaps be remarked that Plekhanov (who was respected as the founder of Russian Marxism) insisted, from 1905 until the end of his life, that there could not be a genuinely Marxist revolution in a country with a relatively tiny proletariat rather than the sort of advanced capitalist country that Marx himself had in mind.
The same is true of the other 20th-century revolution that, in terms of the size of the population involved, was a much greater revolution—that in China. There the relatively tiny Chinese proletariat was wiped out in the suppression of the Canton Commune, and the first Chinese Red Army was manned nearly entirely by peasants. The period of the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, which established a new world record for the number of people starved to death in a famine (30 million), is now officially forgotten. Everything has changed since the day when the faction of the late Deng Xiaoping, called “the capitalist roaders” by their opponents, won power. That faction apparently still retains power now, years after his death. Anyone now wanting a statement of government internal policy is given a 13-page typescript copy of a conference speech he made on December 13, 1978. It remains only to remark that the capitalist roaders have achieved for China, over the past 10 years or so, by far the highest average economic growth rate anywhere in the world.
- Berlin, I. (1996). Karl Marx: His life and environment (4th ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Deutscher, I. (1973). Marxism in our time. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Press.
- Heilbroner, R. L. (1980). Marxism: For and against. New York: Norton.
- Wheen, F. (2000). Karl Marx: A life. New York: Norton.