The bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth has just now been the occasion, inevitably, of remembrances and reflections.
It shouldn’t be necessary in 2018 to throw another heap of dirt on Marx’s grave in order to keep his mischief in the ground, but it seems delusion springs eternal. The New York Times, right on cue, has just favored us with a philosophy professor’s defense of Marx, not shrinking from the title: “You (Marx) Were Right!” So let me pick up my little shovel and add my bit to the false prophet’s interment. Shall we begin with the dreadful mathematics? "The Black Book of Communism" (meticulously documented scholarly study first published in France in 1997), puts the body count of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies at about 100 million, give or take a few enormous heaps of corpses in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. (That’s about four times the toll claimed by Nazism, if you’re keeping score.)
This is where Marx’s defenders will point out that Marxism was never actually implemented in the right way. Karl Marx himself said he wasn’t a Marxist, after all. So is it just a coincidence that, every time a revolutionary party has tried to create a Marxist utopia, the “revolution” has ended up adding to the grisly body count? As Guy Sorman pointed out recently in City Journal, for Marx’s apologists, “as soon as Marxism is applied, it ceases to be Marxist, which allows a resolutely materialist philosophy to transform itself into pure idealism.”
Sorman reports a conversation with the great French liberal Jean-Francois Revel. Sorman and Revel were wondering together where the last Marxist would be found. Would he be a provincial priest or a Harvard professor? It turns out provincial French priests gave up on Marx some years ago (though Pope Francis might want to check his messages.) So the last sighting of a true-believing Marxist not in captivity might indeed happen on a college campus. Finding a Marxist in a university economics department should be a much bigger challenge than in, say, anthropology or sociology or comparative literature. But it turns out the University of Utah is up to the challenge. Whether the U.’s economics department is rightly described as “Marxist,” or whether it is as Marxist as it was before three retirements, I can’t say. In any case, the department is openly proud that the study of Marx is a keystone of the program.
Nothing wrong with that, on its face. The study of Marx should indeed be considered essential to modern Western intellectual history. I teach a unit on Marx in my own modern political philosophy survey. The question is, how is Marx to be taught? What context is provided? Is the little matter of the body count to be mentioned? Of course Marx’s more circumspect academic defenders (“Marxian,” not “Marxist”) will be careful to explain that Marx’s thought is a useful tool for the critical study of “capitalism.” (I put the term in quotations, because the concept itself often betrays a Marxist bias: “capitalism” reduces the rich notion of political and economic freedom to the sheer, abstract and inhuman mechanisms of profit-making.) To be sure, the machinery of economic profit and productivity are not in themselves adequate to defining a good or even a decent society. And one can indeed learn from certain of Marx’s critiques of “capitalism.”
The whole question, though, is that of the standpoint from which one levels a critique of a market economy. Marx’s standpoint was the dream of the revolutionary creation of a new human being, and indeed a new world. He said plainly that his point was not to understand the world but to change it. This, alas, is precisely the soft spot in liberalism that makes it vulnerable to the nonsense of Marxist or Marxian “liberation”: the idea that we can change the world for the better without understanding the permanent realities, and thus the limitations, of the human condition. “Some see things as they are. … I dream things that never were” and all that nonsense. “Idealists” (Marxist, Marxian or other) who ignore the limits of human nature in all its glory and its misery, who agitate for “change” without attending to human reality in asking what makes change good — such “idealistic” anti-capitalists have not learned the most essential lesson of the 20th century. Cut off from sobering reality, idealism is exciting. It is also destructive, and finally murderous.