What Would Karl Marx Say If He Met Bernie Sanders?

In an imagined meeting between Marxism's founder, Karl Marx and socialist Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, we do not know of course, what they would say, but one thing is certain – Marx would have been dumbfounded to learn that Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist, too.

For the founding fathers of the Marxist movement, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the main driving force of history was the class struggle between the working class (proletariat) and the capitalists (bourgeoisie). They predicted that a proletarian revolution would overthrow the bourgeoisie, and that would pave the way to a perfect, classless society.

Latter-day socialists serve a very different constituency: college students, especially those whose major fields include the word studies – social studies, ethnic studies, gender studies; former college students living in their parents’ basements and wishing that their student loans could be cancelled; and big-city dwellers, whose paychecks or welfare checks come for the most part from the government. Their generous promises appeal to other categories as well. Yet, the original constituents of the socialists, the heirs of the proletariat – the blue-collar workers living mostly in small- and medium-sized cities in the flyover states – have been lost, perhaps irrevocably, to Donald Trump, or to Boris Johnson, if they happen to live in England.

The Marxist theorists had the pejorative term ‘lumpenproletariat’ for an underclass strata consisting of miscellaneous groups, such as the chronically unemployed, the homeless, criminals and other outcasts who were uninterested in revolutionary advancement. They were explicitly excluded from the concept of proletariat, because they were "isolated from the forces of production and incapable of having a working-class consciousness." The Manifesto of the Communist Party written by Marx and Engels contemptuously calls them “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.” Yet, Sanders is eager to attract them to his camp, too.

Not only would Marx be shocked to learn about Sanders’ views, the feeling would be mutual. The notion that the Socialists are protectors of the rights of all oppressed minorities – whether defined in terms of race, religion or otherwise – is relatively recent. The founding fathers of Marxism did not subscribe to it. The ugly truth about their attitude toward non-Western peoples is exposed by Black social scientist Carlos Moore in his paper “Were Marx and Engels White Racists?” published in “Berkeley Journal of Sociology,” vol. 19 (1974-75), pp. 125-156. Here is its very brief summary.

The paper quotes numerous derogatory racial and ethnic slurs and tropes from Marx’ and Engels’ works that I do not wish to reproduce here. More importantly, it sheds light on the bigger picture that explains the roots of their disdain for non-Western societies. Marx and Engels lived in the period of colonial conquests in Asia and Africa by the West. In their view of the world, capitalism was the last class society that would be replaced by a classless paradise. They believed that the pre-capitalist societies in Asia and Africa had to pass the capitalist stage of development in order to enter the paradise. Hence, according to Marx and Engels, their colonization by the West and integration into the capitalist world system was a ‘progressive’ step, a prerequisite for reaching an eventual egalitarian Eden. But let Moore speak for himself; direct excerpts from his paper are in italics:

The Mexican-American war of 1846-48 was "a typical example of brazen imperialistic conquest and expansionism. But not to the founders of Marxism, who greeted it as a "civilizing" event along the road to universal progress. The "energetic Yankees," they argued, would carry out a quick exploitation of the California gold mines, people of the conquered areas, and open up the Pacific to civilization, all of which the "lazy Mexicans" were naturally incapable of doing.

Similarly, ... Marx and Engels saw the conquest of Algeria by the French as an "important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilization ..."

Nowadays, trying to save the face of the founding fathers, Aryan Marxists make all sorts of posthumous excuses for Marx and Engels. These apologists will engage in multiple and ingenious intellectual acrobatics to make us believe that the architects of Marxism didn't really "mean" what they said, but meant what they did not say. We are asked to understand the "dialectical nature" of their pro-slavery, pro-colonialist, pro-imperialist, white supremacist (and Germanic) pronouncements. The "complexity" of their thinking and analytical process is also invoked by the apologists, as if to intimidate us into swallowing the crass racism of Marx and Engels.

There are personal differences between Sanders and his ideological forerunners as well. First, Sanders was enamored with Russia when it was still known as the USSR, so much so that he spent his honeymoon there. His Marxist forerunners had nothing but contempt for Russia and for Slavic peoples in general, designating them as “less advanced” societies. That’s what prompted Moore to call them Aryan Marxists. Second, unlike Marx, Sanders wrote a commercially successful book that made him a millionaire. Marx’s “Das Kapital” turned out to be more influential, but it did not raise much capital for its author. Unlike Sanders, who enjoys the opportunities provided by capitalism, Marx was impractical; he lived in poverty, had many children and few friends.

One might explain away Marx’ and Engels’ racism by saying that we should not judge people living in the 19th century by today’s standards, which is correct. However, prominent Marxists expressed the same attitude toward "natives" of Asia and Africa much more recently. Here is an example:

Senator Marco Rubio criticized prominent African Americans for their admiration of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. According to Rubio, Guevara "wrote extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent.” PolitiFact, a reputable fact-checker, analyzed Rubio’s statement and indeed, found a rabidly racist quotation from Guevara’s book, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” written in the 1950s. The quotation is so vile that I have decided not to dignify it by reproducing it here, but it is available on the PolitiFact website. PolitiFact confirmed its authenticity, but still rated Rubio’s statement “Mostly False,” because Rubio used the adverb extensively.

To put a more innocuous spin on Guevara’s statement, PolitiFact consulted experts who did not dispute the accuracy of that ugly racist quote, but tried to explain it away by pointing to Guevara’s youth – he was 24 when he wrote it. Later in his life Guevara, who was killed at 39, spoke out against racial discrimination. We have no way of knowing if he truly changed his views or simply watched his language when he rose to prominence.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for college professors who extol the virtues of socialism to their students without mentioning monumental failures of real life socialist experiments that destroyed – figuratively and literally – millions of lives.  While these tenured professors enjoy six-digit salaries and generous vacations, they cynically doom the impressionable kids to a life of misery.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of public domain image colorized by Olga Klimbim / Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

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