Remembering Karl Marx, Prophet of Violence and Terror

On the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, the world should be excoriating his ideas and the terrorism they spawned, not excusing or celebrating them.

Memorial of the German revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883) on the Teatralnaya square in Moscow, Russia. (Image: Subcomandantemarcos | us.fotolia.com)

It’s always a risky exercise to draw a straight line between particular ideas and human events. Most occurrences in human history have multiple causes. Occasionally, however, you can identify direct links. One example of this is the life and thought of Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday is being commemorated this month. Without Marx, I’d submit, the twentieth century would have been far freer of ideologically-sanctioned murder, violence, theft, and envy.

Not that you would know this from reading recent opinion pieces in the New York Times or from seeing those symbols of those Marxist tyranny—the red flags with hammer-and-sickle—paraded in Western European and Latin American cities every May 1st. In a world in which we rightly condemn figures like Adolf Hitler and movements such as National Socialism for the destruction and death they inflicted upon millions, it remains acceptable on the political and intellectual left to praise a man whose ideas and actions were a major catalyst for the death of somewhere between 85 and 100 million people from 1918 until 1991.

That butcher’s list doesn’t include the destroyed economies, burnt churches, or the systematic use of mass imprisonment, torture and state terrorism by Marxist activists and regimes who regarded Marx and Marxist ideology as providing fundamental legitimacy for their actions.

When confronted with these brutal historical facts, the standard response from contemporary apologists for Marx is that he was “misunderstood,” or that he would have had nothing to do with monsters like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara, or Pol Pot. Marx, we’re told, was actually a humanist who raised his voice like an Old Testament Prophet in an appeal for justice amidst the dreadful conditions of nineteenth-century industrial Europe.

But Marx wasn’t interested in things like justice or questions of good and evil. He was, after all, a philosophical materialist. Marx consequently didn’t believe that morality had a real existence of its own. For like all philosophical materialists, Marx’s ultimate explanation for everything was rigidly economistic. Social, cultural, and religious phenomena were simply a reflection of what really counted: the nature of the means of production and who controlled them.

That’s why Communists like Lenin never had any qualms about employing criminal methods to get their way. Marx’s conclusion that “morality isn’t real” was all they needed to rationalize whatever they thought was required to “speed up” history and accelerate progress towards the inevitable end of time which Marx called Communism. Hence, we find people like the British Marxist historian, the late Eric Hobsbawn, responding with a mumbled “yes” when the Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff asked him if the deaths of 20 million people in the former Soviet Union would have been acceptable if the end-stage of Communism had been achieved.

To remove, however, any shadow of a doubt that Marx himself had no misgivings whatsoever about terrorist tactics, let’s consider a short editorial penned by Marx when the Prussian government suppressed the Cologne newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung of which he was Editor-in-Chief in May 1849. Having argued that this action was entirely to be expected given the threat posed by his newspaper to the established order, Marx unambiguously reaffirmed

there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.

As if to ensure that his readers got the point, Marx immediately and chillingly added: “Is that clear, gentlemen?”

If those words doesn’t prefigure the terrorist means used by any number of Marxist activists and regimes since Marx’s time, I don’t know what does. Indeed, a few lines later, Marx spells it out again. “We have no compassion,” he wrote, “and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror.”

Just one year later in London, Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels coauthored an address which, once again, endorsed the use of terrorist violence, this time to radicalize middle-class efforts to produce more democratic societies and push such movements in very different directions:

Above all, during and immediately after the struggle the workers, as far as it is at all possible, must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phrases. They must work to ensure that the immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory. On the contrary, it must be sustained as long as possible. Far from opposing the so-called excesses—instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals or against public buildings with which hateful memories are associated—the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but must even give them direction.

These aren’t the musings of a detached philosopher who dreams about peacefully transforming the world. It’s the language of the committed revolutionary activist who’s willing to do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, destroy, torture, and, if necessary, kill—to achieve a desired end. It’s also the path to hells-on-earth like the Gulag in Siberia and the Killing Fields in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Far from celebrating Marx’s life and work, we should be using the bicentennial of his birth to remember the millions who suffered and died—and, in some places, are still suffering and dying—at the hands of those inspired by Marx and his ideas to inflict misery and death on the human race on a historically-unprecedented scale.

There’s surely no better way of doing justice to their memory but also ensuring that the dark truth about Karl Marx, rather than the romantic myths, ultimately prevails.


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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 31 Articles
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of many books, including Becoming Europe (2013) and For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

5 Comments

  1. “Without Marx, I’d submit, the twentieth century would have been far freer of ideologically-sanctioned murder, violence, theft, and envy (Gregg)”. The last “envy” is the diseased interior cell that metastasized and destroyed all class system ideologies. France’s revolution and the Paris communes were the prototypes from which Marx drew inspiration for the classless proletariat state. A state requires a ruling class as it did in France which ended with Emperor Napoleon to dictate as suited Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union reeling from corruption within a new form of nonviolent Class Warfare was introduced to the Catholic Church in Am via Saul Alinsky Cardinal Bernadin’s mentor. Class envy was the fuel. China claims success but like the Soviet Union there is a distinct powerful wealthy upper class and an increasingly envious working class of which top echelon are fearful. The only hope of a justly integrated society was betrayed by the Vatican.

  2. Marxism in its latter day guise, like present day Islam is learning, often subverts from within existing social and judicial institutions and norms.

    The 1917 revolution promised and then twisted the idea of democratic freedoms with gross violence introduced quickly once Lenin and company had the reins of government.

    Today, it seems much more insidious. Appropriation of the language, education and culture. All hiding behind an inversion of freedom and liberty.

  3. Nineteenth century laissez-faire capitalism increased the well-being of virtually everyone in Western Europe and North America. For the first time in history, the man in the street had three square meals a day, adequate clothing and shelter, and some sort of a decent life. But this didn’t sit well with persons with misanthropic tendencies. The progress that the masses of people had made infuriated them. They wanted the masses put back in their place. The way to this end was socialism because socialism reduces the citizen to a dehumanized existence. But this presented a problem. How to get the masses to support a movement deliberately designed to reduce them to a subhuman and dehumanized existence? Fortunately, the misanthropes got lucky. Although capitalism had raised the standard of living of great masses of people to previously undreamed of heights, many people claimed that working people and the lower classes had been exploited and that their situation was worse after the Industrial Revolution than before. Although these claims were false, many honest people did believe them and still believe them, and this provided socialists with the opportunity to pose as humanitarians trying to improve the lot of the poor and the lower classes. Capitalism, they claimed, was exploitative and the market was a gladiatorial arena where the rich and powerful exploited the weak and the poor. Government, by contrast, was the wise and kindly friend of the common man and the Little People.

  4. Today government rules 131 million private-sector workers who produce and sell all goods and services for profits. Governor seizes/steals profits and sends to 22 million government employees and 55 million government dependents. Check recipients vote to to reelect incumbents and keep government checks coming.

    Private-sector workers are in essence serfs.

    Will a 21st Lenin emerge to shout “Private-Sector Workers Unite” to usher in a modern dictatorship of the proletariat using artificial intelligence to succeed where government committees failed in Russia and China?

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Remembering the prophet of violence and terror – Acton Institute PowerBlog
  2. FAQ: New Karl Marx statue cheered by EU and China – Acton Institute PowerBlog
  3. TVESDAY MORNING EDITION – Big Pulpit
  4. Catholic cardinal: Karl Marx is a source of Catholic social teaching – moderncatholic.pl
  5. Remembering Karl Marx: Prophet of Violence and Terror - Fr. John Peck
  6. “We must not remain silent”: On the life and sacrifice of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko – Catholic World Report

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