Genius or Menace: The Ambivalence of Karl Marx
Born of an apostate Jew—a man who’d sacrificed on the altar of his career a religion, a family’s profession, and an ancient creed—was a boy, a menace, a genius. While eventually, as we all do, this boy would grow out of the first of those three things along his way to becoming an adult, exactly where he ended on the spectrum we can’t be sure. To this day, we can’t decide on which characteristic—that of menace or genius—he landed at the conclusion of his life. Two hundred years after his birth, we find ourselves still arguing which of those last two attributes most aptly define his legacy and suit his name.
Was he, after all, a menace or was he a genius? Was he a knave or a gnostic? Was he a libertine and a rogue—more noxious, pretentious, and unseemly than anyone before or since—or was he an enlightened erudite sent to us like a prophet? More than anything, though, we ask ourselves as we observe this month’s bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, whether this most compelling, contradictory, and controversial figure of history was a mere crack-pot philosopher—whose ideas bear sole responsibility for the deaths of millions and the afflictions of millions more—or if he was, as some apologists would have us believe, a prescient sage, whose millennialism still anticipates our future bliss, still tempts our visions of utopia, and still guarantees our paradise in this life to come.
To past generations, to our generation, and to all foreseeable generations yet born, this vital question is posed and we grapple with it still: How are we to regard this man Karl Marx? What are the upshots of his theories and the downfalls of their application? You might think the question obsolete, but I stand here prepared to disagree. Far from it being a mere academic matter, the likes of which find better use scribbled in the backs of textbooks or etched on ivory tower bricks, this very question is one of those to which we must all carefully return over and again.
You can see how in the raising of one question about Marx, many more follow in its wake. Quickly, the curious mind becomes bogged down. Deftness is made slow. It’s this that reminds me to stay on task and return to that original prompt—that is, whether Marx was a menace or a genius. In answering that question, I’ll hazard to do so in the flakiest and most anodyne possible way. In a word, he was both. Accuse me of a cop-out, and I shan’t protest the charge. I say, he was both menace and genius. So far as I’m concerned, Marx was a genius, but not without qualification. He was a genius as only an evil genius can be. So too was he a menace, but only in the menace’s most brilliant embodiment.
From the outset, acknowledging this overlap gives me pause. There’s something positively Heraclitean about attributing to Marx in a single breath these two contrary traits of menace and genius. As that Greek philosopher Heraclitus once taught, there’s to be found in opposites a certain unity, an unexpected composition of different and various parts. A river’s waters can’t be trod twice, he might’ve been heard to say five hundred years before the emergence of Christ, nor can something in the static state of “being” or in the absent state of “non-being” contemporaneously exist. Everything is a process of interminable motion, of non-fixation, of becoming and of flux. This same Heraclitean idea, useful in grasping Marx’s personality, doubles beautifully in comprehending his thought.
After all, Marx was nothing if not a product of the eminent and abstruse philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to whom the former owed an immeasurable intellectual debt. And as no mind is born in a vacuum, nor does it ever sprout legs and walk on its own accord, Hegel himself stood on the shoulders of others. Aside from his near contemporary Immanuel Kant, Hegel was an unabashed acolyte of that equally recondite thinker, Heraclitus. To borrow botany as an analogy, if Marx was the final product in this lineage of three—the plump piece of fruit into which the twentieth-century’s progressives would sink their hungry teeth—then Hegel was the branch and the trunk, and Heraclitus the sturdy root. Taken together, you’re left with something along the lines of a father, a son, and a fiery-eyed specter—a haunting, bearded unholy ghost. And so, from Greek antiquity, to romantic Germany, and thence to the industrial age, Heraclitus moved through Hegel and intoxicated Marx. And Marx infatuates us still.
To take our analogy just a bit further, that same piece of fruit is only as nutritive as the soil whence it came. The ground of the twentieth century was sufficiently fertile and what’s more, it was absolutely bubbling for want of change. In increasingly frequent, incarnadine, and violent ways, that came to mean revolution. Juntas and coups sprang up like primroses on nearly every continent, all of them promising to make real Marx’s ideas. They didn’t hesitate to send their reapers and their sickles out to pasture to cut down any individual or party caught standing too tall. They chopped down anyone who posed a threat or looked askance at their newfangled communistic weal. Such unlucky stalks included everyone from liberals, to conservatives, to capitalists, to Cambodians, to kulaks, to Mensheviks, to Trotskyites—to name but a few. And those endeavoring toward their Marxist utopias weren’t shy in spilling blood, or in coloring red their once verdant fields.
Therein lies the menace of Marx. It was the direct application of his thought, first by Lenin, then by Stalin, then by Mao, then by Castro, then by Minh, then by Pot, then by Allende, and then in our own day, by Chavez and Maduro that has led to the deaths—all of them unnatural, brutal, and premature—of no fewer than one hundred million people. Hardly any religion, let alone any other philosophy, can ascribe to its creed so many grisly ends. No other ideology has been as sanguinary. No greater nor more gratuitous a number of human beings have been shorn of life in the name of an idea in so brief a time as those who died for Marx.
Where then, we’re left to ask, is Marx’s genius to be found? And if found, is there anything redemptive under the tangled folds of this supposed erudition? In addressing his genius, you need to view the total output of his work and influence it still wields. For one, he had a boundlessly eclectic mind. While he’s best known to us as an economist, that truly wasn’t his calling. Nor will you find many legitimate economists today welcoming into their fraternity of thought Marx as one of their own. To them, he’s considered persona non-grata, much as is Freud for the psychologists. His chief contribution was not to that dismal science—as Thomas Carlyle so aptly and derisively referred to it—but to the social science.
As an undergraduate, he fancied himself a poet, priding himself in his ability to quote Shakespeare and Goethe at length (he had an especial affinity for the latter’s diabolical character Mephistopheles who features brilliantly in Faust—a character with whom he could portentously relate). He wrote a few original pieces that were favorably received and positively reviewed, but this mattered to him and to prosperity not. It would be in his later, numerous critiques where his artistic flair would fully shine. There, in those countless diatribes and polemics, his crafty way with words would become not only manifest, but unforgettable. So unforgettable, in fact, that they would eventually find themselves chiseled ineffaceably in stone in every corner of Europe from Berlin to London and Kiev to the Kremlin. And with so many stirring and memorable quotes, who among you Keynesians or Classicists could resist? When Marx says that “last words are for fools who haven’t said enough”, or that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, or, in his and Engel’s famous manifesto, “you have nothing to lose but your chains”, or in his critique of his beloved Hegel, “religion is the opium of the masses”, you can almost feel the passion leap from the page and land indelibly in the soul.
After dabbling in law at his now deceased father’s request, Marx turned from the mundane legal jargon of modernity to the dynamic cartwheels of antiquity. He dived into the study of ancient Greece and bathed in every stream along the way. Finding, as mentioned, Heraclitus as his bedrock, he happily returned to the surface for a breath of fresh air. With one last quaff of Rousseau’s general will and of Hegel’s famous dialectic before re-emerging on land, Marx earned his doctorate in philosophy. However, degree in hand, he never did secure himself a professorial job, as was his dream. A “young” Hegelian at the University of Berlin (as opposed to the “old”, more religiously conservative Hegelians of the right), he gained a reputation as being somewhat of a rascal. In the understandably cautious minds of the faculties across Europe, he simply wouldn’t cut it as an academic. The mere thought of him standing at the podium corrupting the youth and preaching impieties would be enough to make cringe even the Athenians by whom Socrates was prosecuted and killed.
Shorn of his initial career plan, he took to writing and publishing. His radicalism animated his journalism and it brought him from Germany, to France, to Belgium, and finally to Great Britain. It was in fact during his stay in Belgium that he was able to lend a hand in inciting the Springtime of the Peoples—an 1848 pan-European revolution that yielded underwhelming results. Nevertheless, in the course of his itinerancy, he mastered three languages—German, English, and French—and was as fluent and disputatious in the first as he was in the last. Aside from philosophy, philology, poetry, law, and linguistics, he went on to study and write about phrenology, ethnicity, eugenics, and the intellectual differences between the black race and the white. Granted, the last four belong today in the dust bin of pseudo-science, but in his time, they were serious and growing fields very much in vogue and promulgated by the state.
His most percipient insight, though, came not in examining the ridges of skulls nor looking for the shortcomings in a darker man’s skin, but in observing the people around him and the society within which they lived. Others before him had seen this society too (one calls to mind the French socialist Charles Fourier, or the early British socialists Robert Owen and Thomas Carlyle, the latter of whom I made earlier mention), but none had captured so masterfully or vituperatively the wretched plight suffered in it by the common man. Marx witnessed and commented on the travails of the industrial worker, the proletariat, in terms that hadn’t been used before. In his eyes, the laboring class had become one giant Sisyphus—an amalgam of arms and legs, heartbeats and sweaty brows pushing against an oppressive capitalist elite. At the end of each day, much like that Grecian myth, the workers would be crushed by the boulders under which they slaved away. They’d be sent tumbling down the mountain of a vulgar economy without an advantage to call their own. What’s worse, the next morning, they’d get up, risk life and limb, numb themselves to the boredom, and do it all over again.
The bourgeoisie were those who stood above them while the wheels of history and materialism directed the lesser man’s fate. These owners of capital purchased on the cheap their labor, and profited handsomely when they sold dear its products. Their purses would swell and their coffers stretch, all while the proletariat tumbled back down the hillside in pecuniary defeat. They lived in squalor while the ascendant class stretched its limbs on comfortable estates and indulged in epicurean delights. To Marx, the inequality was unpalatable, and he gave voice to this alienated, exploited, pauperized class. The arguments he made on their behalf were nothing short of profound and messianic.
Less has this been a defense of Marx’s genius, nor a trumpeting of his menace, than it’s been an exploration of my own ambivalence. You simply have to acknowledge a gifted and, more importantly, an influential writer and thinker when one stumbles across your desk. Marx is precisely that and quite a bit more. He was a completely unprecedented thinker, operating not ahead of his time, but almost entirely outside of it. In this way, he not only stumbles across my desk, but he lingers, but only for a moment. If one isn’t careful, and if he’s left there long enough, Marx takes root. Left longer still, he bears fruit. But the warning label, as if recycled from Eden, remains the same—as if given once to the first man, Adam, and now the “new man”, Marx: his is not the type of fruit whose flesh you want coursing through your veins. It’s poisonous, corrupt, rancid and only a totalitarian tempts himself with a bite. Is this worth the genius and the knowledge purchased at the tree of death? I think not, but you are your own man, your own woman, and the decision is yours to make.