Acton Commentary

Low Marx for Poor Memory


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx is the greatest philosopher of all time. Or at least this is what many BBC Radio listeners suggested recently when asked to nominate such a person. To the surprise of some, Marx topped the poll, beating - by wide margins - thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Kant.

Marx wrote many things, including admiring words about capitalism which he regarded as a definite advance on previous economic arrangements. The BBC result, however, underlines a strange blindness about Marx persisting within Western societies.

In one sense, this is nothing new. In the 1930s, intrepid Westerners traveled to the U.S.S.R and returned saying that they had seen the future. Somehow they managed not to see the purges, the collectivization, and the gulags that resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of millions. Communism, it is often said, was a godless system. This is not quite right. Communism was godless insofar as it was based upon an atheistic vision of man. Yet Communism did have its gods. It had its deities to whom anything and anyone could be sacrificed.

One response is to claim that Marx's philosophy was distorted by Lenin and Stalin. Marx himself, one often hears, was a humanist who wished to liberate people from their chains. Other apologists insist that one can distinguish between the young Marx and the old Marx: the youthful philosopher being more humanistic than the grayer, more callous political revolutionary.

Even cursory attention to Marx's writings quickly reveals the hollowness of such defenses. A consistent anti-human vision features throughout Marx's thought. For Marx, man is a being whose origins are irrelevant, whose future is extinction, and whose present is beyond his control. Even people living in Marx's Communist society have no possibility of a meaningful existence. Marx once described Communist society as one in which it would be possible “to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please.”

This sounds idyllic until one realizes that, from Marxism's perspective, none of these activities can have any value for humans. For true materialists, there can be no qualitative difference between reading and fishing, working or sleeping, living or dying. Everything has the same value and therefore no value. In this world, there is no difference between Mother Teresa's work and that of a concentration camp guard. They share equally in a general irrelevance of everything and everyone.

This tells us that Marxism cannot be interested in justice or liberty. It insists that we are like driftwood, floating hither and thither on the waves of history. In such a world, our lives matter naught. Our deaths are irrelevant. We merely try and salvage whatever animal satisfaction we can from life, before our essential nothingness is finalized in our ultimate annihilation as living beings.

So much for Marx's humanism. A more serious problem with Marxist philosophy is its legitimatizing of criminality.

By “criminal,” I do not simply mean the occasional breaking of law. Rather, I mean a situation whereby people decide that they are above law; that they are not subject to law; that law is merely another tool of power. For if Marxism is right and materialism is true, then systematic violence to pursuit political goals is acceptable.

The irony is that while millions today know about the Nazis' unspeakable crimes, rather fewer know about the atrocities committed by Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot and other Marxists. It is as if there has been a subtle agreement not to discuss these crimes. This studied ignorance manifests itself when we observe red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles waved at demonstrations. Do their wavers know what the red flag means for those who were enslaved and killed by Marxist regimes? Why is Marxism's red flag not treated with the same contempt rightly attached to the swastika?

Marx, of course, died years before his followers managed to seize power. But one suspects that Marx would have applauded Communist use of violence. Marx himself advocated hanging capitalists from the nearest lamppost. “When our turn comes,” Marx warned his opponents, “we shall not disguise our terrorism.”

Much violence has been done in the name of philosophies and religions, including Christianity. The difference is that Christianity contains moral criteria according to which we can judge and condemn such activity on the part of Christians. Marxism never had and could never have such standards. For in Marxist philosophy, there is no place for love of God and love of neighbor. Perhaps that, above all, is what makes Marx so unworthy of contemporary admiration.