Godfather of Revolutions
By Gabriel Blanchard
Engagement with Marxist ideas is essential to a clear understanding of nineteenth and twentieth century history the world over.
Karl Marx is among the most contentious figures on our author bank. Statesmen, philosophers, economists, religious thinkers, historians—and for that matter, the multitude of schools of Marxists—have been warring over his ideas, both figuratively and literally, for more than a century and a half. It is precisely here that his importance lies. The course of world history since 1848 makes little sense without, at minimum, a cursory understanding of Marx; moreover, as Aristotle said, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea with or without believing it.
Marx was born in what is now western Germany, and spent his life moving between Germany, France, the Low Countries, and finally Great Britain. A student of Hegelian philosophy, he became a journalist and an avid researcher, joining the intellectual foment of nineteenth-century Europe that had followed on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Classical Liberalism was fully formed in America and much of Europe at this point, and was beginning to attract critics, Marx among them.
Among his innovations was the concept of historical materialism. Rather than viewing history and politics as being moved by clashes of ideals, as many previous historians (and many contemporary Hegelians) argued, Marx asserted that material conditions dictate history’s flow—that is, people’s access to the goods and resources they need to live, and their power, or powerlessness, to control others’ access to those same resources.
Another of the key elements of his theory is the idea of capital, or the “means of production.” This meant goods like factories or tools, that allow a person to “extract” value from resources by labor. An oven is an example of a capital good. On the one hand, you cannot eat an oven (at least, not without undesirable wear to the teeth); on the other, four uncombined quantities of flour, salt, water, and yeast are not that useful by themselves. But a person can labor in combining those ingredients, and then use the oven in order to make the dough into something that is immediately useful, bread. While allowing for somewhat different situations in earlier social orders (e.g. feudalism), Marx accordingly analyzed his own society as arranged in two basic classes: the bourgeoisie, those who owned capital, and the proletariat, who were forced to obtain their livelihood from the bourgeoisie.
Marx argued that the capitalist systems of the mid-nineteenth century were intrinsically exploitative, because the bourgeoisie or capitalist class were not actually contributing anything to society. In his view, they were simply withholding capital goods from the proletariat, who were the ones whose labor actually made raw materials valuable to both themselves and the bourgeoisie. Marx accordingly advocated proletarian unity, not only within nations but among them: national divisions, like religion and many other major social and historical forces, were in his opinion little more than tools used by the powerful to keep the working classes divided against each other, and thus maintain their own grip on wealth and power. He urged the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie in order to establish a cooperative, egalitarian social order, in which everyone enjoyed the full value of their own labor.
Most of what is (a little vaguely) called “the Left” has been strongly influenced by Marx, in three principal strains: communism, socialism, and anarchism. All three schools of thought existed before Marx, but none could ignore his importance after The Communist Manifesto swept through Europe in 1848. Communists tended to embrace his ideas unreservedly, including their revolutionary implications. Socialists were more moderate (many Christian sympathizers with Marx fell into this category—obviously their view of religion was not wholly compatible with his!). They tended to advocate internal, incremental reform of existing political and economic structures. Anarchists were as suspicious of power as they were of money, and argued for a radical rejection of the state that neither reform nor revolution would accomplish.
Liberal societies in the twentieth century had a complex relationship to Marxism. Some Socialist reforms (such as the workday being limited to eight hours) did become widespread, though amid high controversy. Communistic and anarchist ideas, however, were subject to the bitterest opposition; among other conflicts, the Spanish Civil War was provoked by these tensions. During World War II, a cold truce emerged between the Liberal democracies and the Soviet Union, then the great bastion of Communism proper, for the sake of defeating the fascist aggression of Nazi Germany. But this cold truce promptly became the Cold War after 1945, whose effects we can still observe today, nearly thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a way, the spirit of Marx continues to “hover over the face of the deep.”