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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