Karl Marx at 200: His Lethal Legacy Lingers
In his name, over 100 million people were murdered. May 5, 2018 marks Karl Marx's 200th birthday, and his profound errors still smolder and threaten new conflagrations.
Marx was born into a Europe transforming into a modern, industrial society. Individuals were leaving ancestral villages and farms for growing cities and their seemingly dehumanizing factories. Incredible wealth was being created, but would the factory workers benefit from their labors? What did the future of this emerging new world hold?
History as class conflict
Marx posed as a "scientific socialist," explaining the past and prophesying the future.
Marx was a radical materialist. He asserted that history is a class conflict based on economic forces. People's ideas, what Marx called "phantoms of their brains," are not the drivers of our destinies. We are simply the pawns of the factors of production and distribution of wealth. We don't make our tools so much as our tools make us.
Marx rejected the notion that the rational capacity we all share can discover objective truth. Rather, he asserted that the structure of our minds is determined by our economic class. Thus, there is the "proletarian logic" of the workers and the "bourgeois logic" of the middle class and capitalists. The bourgeoisie are incapable of understanding the workers. It's futile for proletarians to try to explain their circumstances to the bourgeoisie. The truth of the one isn't the truth of the other.
But how could Marx downplay the influence of ideas even as he offered his own, those phantoms in his brain? How could Marx, from a solid bourgeois background, transcend his class and understand "proletarian logic"? Was this just his deceitful way of silencing critics? If you ask, Marx might reply that your bourgeois brain and old-fashioned logic are incapable of grasping how contradictions can be truth.
The few rich and the many poor
Marx asserted that the capitalist owners of factories would use new equipment and efficient organization to create more and more wealth – a thousand teapots a day rather than a hundred; ten thousand shirts a day rather than one thousand. As production and efficiency rose, capitalist owners could fire many employees and reduce the wages of the remaining ones. The rich would get richer, and the poor would get poorer, and the latter's ranks would swell. You might ask Marx, who will buy those thousand teapots and ten thousand shirts if everyone is impoverished? He might answer that your limited bourgeois mind simply can't understand.
Marx asserted a convoluted "labor theory of value" to demonstrate that most wealth created in factories was produced by the workers and expropriated as profits by the capitalists. Never mind that the capitalists risked their own money to build those factories and that many lost their money when less efficient factories failed. Never mind that the economic value of anything, from goods and services to labor, is what customers will pay, not some make-believe calculation hatched in Marx's mind.
The workers' paradise
Marx asserted that the class conflict would come to a head; the masses of workers would learn to effectively organize and would spontaneously revolt and seize the means of production. A dictatorship of the proletariat would oversee the transition to communism. There would be so much wealth, owned collectively by the workers, that workdays would be shorter and workers could spend their leisure in personally enriching activities.
Since human nature is molded by economic conditions, the workers would be conditioned to be peaceful and selfless. In this workers' paradise, all would generously produce according to their ability and happily allow wealth to be distributed according to need.
But it didn't work that way.
Our economic conditions certainly influence us, but it is our ideas that ultimately determine our actions. Sadly, Marx's ideas have been influential since the 1800s, and with blood-soaked consequences.
Those who believed with Marx that there is a bourgeois class that cannot be reasoned with and is expropriating the wealth produced by workers saw only one path to a workers' paradise: censorship, violence, prisons, and mass murder. That has been the program Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Korean Kims, Pol Pot, Chávez, and Maduro. Many young people on campuses today, indoctrinated with Marx's errors, also reject the rational search for truth in favor of censorship and violence.
Countries that have tried communism have all ended up violent and impoverished. The Soviet Union collapsed economically, which caused it to collapse politically. The economic misery in Venezuela today exposes the fallacy of Marxist communism. Add to this the corrupting rather than ennobling effect of redistributing wealth. Look at the former Soviet Union or most American inner cities.
Prosperity has come to the masses because of capitalism and free markets. As enterprises became more efficient, owners invested in new lines of production. Teapots and shirts were followed by the production of automobiles, air conditioners, computers, and every modern convenience, with workers able trade their labor for more and more goods and services. Indeed, Marx's class categories are wrong. All "workers" are investors in their own skills and human capital and entrepreneurs of their own lives.
So on the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, those who truly desire a world in which we can all prosper through our own efforts should work not only to eliminate the barriers to economic liberty, but also to eliminate the lethal influence of Karl Marx.