One thing young people are very unlikely to learn—not from our education system anyway—is that no simple concept can ever hope to explain all of human history, or even most of it. Denied this insight, the notion that history has been determined by class struggles is an easy sell
Most readers of Quadrant would have expected the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx on May 5, 1818, to go largely unnoticed. Today, most would think Marxism a philosophy that died at the end of the Cold War and is now well and truly relegated to the dustbin of history. However, our mainstream press still found adherents who not only marked the anniversary but took an upbeat position. Professor John Buchanan of the School of Business at the University of Sydney declared: “Marx was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His work Das Kapital is still referred to and used in discussions of the modern economy.” In his interview, the Sunday Telegraph observed:
As Western democracies confront such global capital Goliaths as Facebook and Google, the Australian banking royal commission and business pressure to reduce wages by cutting penalty rates and employing casual labour, Buchanan says Marx’s complaints of social inequality under capitalism are increasingly relevant. Marx’s key arguments were that society was the history of class struggles, between property or capital owners, and those without capital.
In London and New York the anniversary was even more newsworthy. Some major newspapers responded as though Marxism was enjoying an intellectual revival, on the verge of the secular equivalent of a Second Coming.
This column appears in the June edition of Quadrant.
Click here to suubscribe
The New York Times headlined: “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right”, and endorsed Marx’s alleged “originality and profound importance as a philosopher”, claiming:
Today the legacy would appear to be alive and well. Since the turn of the millennium countless books have appeared, from scholarly works to popular biographies, broadly endorsing Marx’s reading of capitalism and its enduring relevance to our neoliberal age … Educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis—that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit—is correct.
In London, the Independent also declared Marxism was on the brink of something big: “The world is finally ready for Marxism as capitalism reaches the tipping point.” It said Marx had predicted that the centralisation inherent in globalised, capitalist economies would give birth to a post-capitalist society. Socialist ideas, the Independent asserted, remain celebrated throughout the world, especially among younger generations:
Socialism does not carry historical baggage for a younger generation left behind by the iniquities of capitalism. A Harvard study found that a majority of millennials reject capitalism and a third are in favour of socialism. This is what might be called the revenge of Marx; the rehabilitation of one of the world’s historical philosophers.
The notion of a Marxist revival explains the otherwise difficult to comprehend electoral appeal to young people of those two aged white male socialists, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Thanks to a combination of young electors and the blue-collar vote, Corbyn went close to winning the 2017 British election. Had Sanders been the Democrat candidate for US President instead of Hillary Clinton, opinion polls in May 2016 showed the same constituencies would have allowed him to beat Trump easily.
How could this be? Surely the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the adoption of a capitalist economy by the Chinese Communist Party must have discredited Marxism forevermore? Well, it did for most people at the time but today’s young voters were not even born then. They did not grow up in a world where the failures of communism were vividly on display.
Instead, their minds were primed at school by the radical trinity of gender, race and class. When they got to university—as almost 40 per cent of young people in most Western countries now do—they found Marxism had never died. Professors of sociology and politics never gave up their critique of the classical economics of the Reagan–Thatcher era, which they denounced as “neo-liberalism” and “economic rationalism”. Professors of economics and economic history who might have injected some realism into the debate were a dwindling breed.
The academic dominance of Marxist sympathisers goes back several generations now. In his classic critique, The Closing of the American Mind, philosopher Allan Bloom argued in 1987 that radical theory had captured the agenda about how we in the West study human society and individuals. Young people were taught to scorn the traditional values of Western culture—equality, freedom, democracy—as hollow rhetoric used to mask the self-interest of the wealthy and powerful. Instead, they were taught that Western society was riven by conflict between oppressor and oppressed. This teaching, Bloom argued, had bred a cynical, amoral, self-centred younger generation who lacked any sense of inherited wisdom from the past.
Part of its appeal to today’s politically correct youth was Marxism’s denunciation of marriage. From the outset in 1848, the Communist Manifesto declared bourgeois marriage a form of private prostitution, in which bourgeois males “not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives”. After the socialist revolution, the manifesto predicted the bourgeois family would vanish, along with private property and inheritance.
In the twentieth century, new areas of appeal to young radicals were tacked on to the package. After Vladimir Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917, anti-colonialism and anti-racism became a hallmark of Marxist politics in the independence movements against the old European empires. The Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s was largely inspired by Marxist feminists Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and others keen to extinguish traditional marriage. On Marx’s 200th anniversary, the New York Times celebrated this enlarged dominion:
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the eternal truths of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.
The most pernicious of his package of ideas was Marx’s theory of ideology. Marxism holds that, under capitalism, the dominant ideas, law, morality and religious beliefs are simply expressions of the interests of the ruling class, that is, the capitalists or bourgeoisie, though this is often not apparent to its holders. The emergence of a working class or proletariat produces different interests, and thus a different morality of its own. That is, no objective rule of law or morality exists outside the struggle between classes. But because capitalism is an oppressive system, and the workers are the oppressed, then capitalists are evil and workers are its victims.
Hence, as Noel Weeks pointed out in his illuminating article in our October 2017 edition, the logic of this position is a totalitarian mindset. “Marxism means that anything that is not Marxist is reprehensible and effectively a crime against the people.”
Behind this denial of traditional morality lies one grand concept that triggers all the rest. The Communist Manifesto opens by explaining human history in one simple sentence: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
One thing young people today are very unlikely to learn anymore—not from our education system anyway—is that there is no simple concept that can ever hope to explain all of human history, or even most of it. Marx thought that he had made a discovery equal to Charles Darwin’s natural selection, and which would supersede his mentor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who had previously declared the “struggle for recognition” the central dynamic of human history.
The love of grand theory has long been compelling for leftists, especially in Germany and France, but a theory of all human history in one sentence is absurd. There are so many variables and contingencies in the story of human affairs it is inherently implausible that one size could fit all. Unlike the evolution of species, the thing that distinguishes history is that it is made by human beings who intervene in the process with their will and reason. Luck, stupidity, good judgment and fatal errors, not to mention world-changing technological advances, all play their part. We learn what happened in history by accumulating empirical evidence, not by deducing it from grand theory. No one advocating a one-theory model of history should be taken seriously.
In 1974, the Yugoslav film director Dušan Makavejev made Sweet Movie, a comedy banned for its politics in his home country and censored for its sex scenes almost everywhere else. The film was partly a critique of Marxism, which the director represents as a boat on a canal in Amsterdam, a figurehead of Marx on its prow, piloted by an old trollop who seduces teenage boys with lollies. Makavejev’s insight is all too relevant today.