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The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Karl Marx

I pass every April’s rain preparing for my favorite holiday – May 5th, birth date of Karl Marx, the father of communism. I sit in my corner chair, lulled by the roar of the electric space heater and raindrops striking the windowpanes. I hear neither, as I’m re-reading my collection of the great man’s work along with what, to my mind, is the most well written rundown of his life and thought, Thomas Sowell’s Marxism.

Born 192 years ago today in Trier, Germany, Karl Marx "grew up a brilliant and spoiled child" (Sowell, 165) then spent his college years driving his father to exasperation, poisoning his mind with Hegel, and writing of the day when he would obtain enough political power to "wander godlike and victorious...I will feel equal to the creator". (Sowell, 166)  So even from his youth it’s safe to say the boy had issues. A man who knew him later in life commented "a most dangerous personal ambition has eaten away all the good in him" (Sowell, 183) so the wisdom of age slipped right through him, his monomania left every potential lesson unheeded and unlearned.

Like many born before and since, Karl Marx looked at humanity in our flawed state and decided God had done a rather shoddy job with us, His favorite creation. Granted, whether browsing a bookstore’s history section, watching prime time television, or reading a "letters to the editor" it’s hard to come to any conclusion but that in creating man God certainly came up short. The difference between Marx and most, though, was the former displayed the lunatic’s worth of hubris necessary to believe that he could improve on God’s design. A bad education will do that to someone.

Despite providing the intellectual framework for much of the modern world, during his lifetime he was little known outside the small circle of Europe’s oddball professional revolutionaries and his most influential work, The Communist Manifesto, was not even his best seller. (That distinction belongs to The Civil War in France, published in 1871.) Marx was the proto-type of the modern American "activist", those who Florence King nailed as "thin-skinned pseudo-intellectuals who make their living second-guessing people completely different from themselves". For an example of the type, pick a Congressman, any Congressman.

As his prose meandered and had only a passing acquaintance with logic, coupled with a fondness for giving words (such as "value") a different meaning from their common usage (and the fact that most of his followers (like those of any great thinker) rarely bothered to actually read what he’d written) his intellectual children ran off in so many directions that Marx once declared himself "not a Marxist". (Sowell, 189) The passage of time has not remedied this trait.

For example, one can cherry pick his quotes and make him out to have been either a Thomas Jefferson or...well, a Karl Marx. He wrote in Critique of the Gotha Programme "government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school" (Sowell, 45) and no true progressive can disagree with him there, but he also insisted that political control over education is fine as long as the communists get "to alter the character of that intervention". (Smelser, 63)

One of the chuckles earned from a study of Marx’s work comes from reading his self-righteous denunciations of the Filthy Lucre, yet all the while it’s hard to dismiss his belief that true freedom is freedom from want; so for all his salvos against crass materialism he himself was, at base, as pure a materialist as history can provide. Combining the tone of an angry prophet with the fact that the underlying pillar of his economic philosophy (the insistence that all value is derived from labor) was debunked by the marginal revolution of the late 1870s, in the end reading Karl Marx brings to mind The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan who "flushed with his own gibberish, saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization". Sometimes you almost feel sorry for the man. Almost.

Marx’s hatred of capitalism was not because such a system fails to raise the standard of living of the working masses – he always conceded the point that it did – but the fact that some earned more than others, those others reduced to the drudgery of factory work and thus "alienated", making them somehow lesser men. To him, the tragedy of a free market was that it "thwarted human desires for more humane, just, and loving relationships". (Sowell, 123) He’d take the Cambodian killing fields over a shopping mall, every time.

But it was in his most famous political treatise, The Communist Manifesto, where he gave voice to the ultimate fear of every socialist – spontaneous change. That is the monster in the closet for every planner and much the reason for all the bloodshed they inflict to pursue their dream. Marx shuddered, "the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production...and with them the whole relation of society." (Marx & Engels, 83)

From this primal fear springs the planners’ desire to make the world stand still, then to only move in goosestep to the genius plan they’ve outlined in their heads. The end game of all their attempts is on display cruising the decayed streets of Havana, where the Cuban masses have been reduced to driving cast-off American cars from the 1950s, everyone imprisoned in a sad time warp.

From Nothing To Everything

The philosophy of today is that of Karl Marx. To a considerable extent, without knowing it, many people are philosophical Marxists.
Ludwig Von Mises

By the time Marx passed away in 1883 "socialism was already defeated intellectually", (Mises, 8) but nonetheless his time would come, and when it arrived (as a newspaper he once owned declared on its last day of publication) "we shall not disguise our terrorism". (Sowell, 184) That was a promise well kept. Sub-human creatures such as Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot - and the earthly utopias they willed into being – all grew from the seed of Marx’s twisted hatreds and petty envies. When all is said and done, the summation of his life’s work are the 100 million slaughtered innocents, they are the fruit of his revolution. (Kramer, 4) I usually don’t go in for infanticide, but it would have been better for a lot of people had his mother strangled him at birth.

Marx spent his life working (in the sense of getting paid) in a haphazard, desultory fashion; but he was far from lazy, he just had more important things to do. He poured his prodigious energy into his writings, all of which sold poorly. (He once quipped that his earnings from sales of Das Kapital wouldn’t cover the cigars he smoked while writing it.) He relied for support on inheritances and generosity and, when that all wasn’t enough, he simply endured the poverty and his family suffered along with him.

His life long friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels was of the upper class and his money allowed Marx to sit in the British Museum’s reading room for months on end, scribbling madly and releasing a flood of work. It was only during the last dozen years of his life, when Marx attained a modicum of material comfort, that he slowed down and wrote almost nothing whatsoever. (Sowell, 175)

Maybe he simply wanted to enjoy what little time he had left and leave the revolution to his intellectual heirs. It was with his children and grandchildren where Karl Marx seemed finally human, and he was by many accounts a loving parent and grandparent, "gentle and indulgent" towards all his offspring, playing games for hours and telling them fairy tales of his own making. (Sowell, 182)

Hitler was nice to dogs.

In the eulogy delivered over his grave Engels said of Marx, "his name will endure through the ages, and so will his work". (Sowell, 186) How true. Read The Communist Manifesto (available in any bookstore) and note the ten planks of the party platform – seven of them are currently in operation from sea to shining sea, all with the cheering approval of the American mob. The contribution of Karl Marx to the organization and outlook of our society is unmatched by any other historic figure.

When it came to economics Karl Marx was crack smoking stupid, on that subject he leaves behind nothing of value, but when it came to the seizure of political power he proved himself an absolute genius. His prediction that a socialist utopia would rise triumphant not by the bullet but the ballot has been proved correct – for evidence just read the newspaper editorials or watch Congress on C-SPAN for an hour. Mises may have won the "socialist calculation" debate but his wisdom was smothered beneath 100 million corpses. Our last, blood drenched century belonged to Marx, and likely will this one, too.  

So every May 5th I rise extra early and, being a stickler for historical accuracy and a proud patriot, slip on my Che t-shirt, run up the Stars and Stripes, and blink away tearful visions of Iwo Jima as she spreads proud in the breeze. No work for me today, and after I bring my son home from our local public school, (plank number ten of the party platform, incidentally) I’ll stop by the bar and raise a glass in homage to the father of modern America.

Happy Birthday, Karl Marx.

Suggested Readings

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. (London, Penguin Books, 1967)

Smelser, Neil J., ed. Karl Marx On Society and Social Change. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973)

Sowell, Thomas. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. (New York, William Morrow, 1985)

Cain, Maureen & Hunt, Alan, eds. Marx and Engels On Law. (New York, Academic Press, 1979)

Von Mises, Ludwig. Marxism Unmasked. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, Foundation for Economic Education, 2006)

Padover, Saul K, ed. The Letters of Karl Marx. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1979)

Engels, Friedrich. The Role of Force In History. (New York, International Publishers, 2006)

Kramer, Mark, ed. The Black Book of Communism. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1999)

Originally posted to CJ Maloney on Wed May 05, 2010 at 02:45 AM PDT.

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