Sunday, November 6, 2011

Who was Karl Marx? And was he right?

There are few philosophers whose very name provokes more violent responses than Karl Marx.

His stern face, framed by a mass of gray hair, symbolizes for many Americans the costly battles of the 20th century: battles against communism, socialism, and authoritarianism fought in defense of democracy and free-market capitalism. As successive generations of Americans waged those fights, the philosophical disputes at the core of the conflicts embedded themselves into the American soul. So much so that when the "evil empire," whose seeds sprouted from Marx's doctrine, died as a result of the revolutions of 1989, the ideological battle did not.

Though the Soviet Union is but a memory, and that other communist behemoth -- China -- has mutated into a capitalist autocracy, the specter of Marx himself remains as potent as ever in 21st century U.S. political discourse. Since 2008 especially, with the fall of financial markets and the rise of Barack Obama, the charge "Marxist" has been hurled like toxic sludge against politicians seen as ready to redistribute wealth (to the advantage of most Americans), expand social safety nets, or ensure that all children receive a good education. Critics say these steps are merely the first along a slippery slope that inevitably ends in outright state control. Amid these warnings, the communist horrors of the 20th century float like dark apparitions, reminding us of the bad old days.

But I wonder how many of those who invoke the name of Marx in order to stifle political debate actually believe their own propaganda. Or are they conjuring up a convenient bogeyman at a time of great uncertainty. Do they raise Marx's image in order to deflect attention from slightly warmer bodies (Marx has been dead for 128 years)in positions of political or economic power who are actually more pernicious? I also wonder whether those who use Marx's name, and those who tremble at the thought of him, actually know much about the man. Are they reacting to Karl Marx or those things done in his name? I believe it is the latter. I also believe it is time to understand Marx so that we are no longer made to fear him. more