Karl Marx’s critics have long tried to consign his work to the dustbins of history.
The 1883 death of “the best hated and most calumniated man of his time,” as his best friend and longtime collaborator Friedrich Engels described him in a graveside memorial, was greeted by much of the American press with a note of triumph. One California paper editorialized that Marx’s “life was not a success, and at the time of his death he had witnessed the failure of every extensive project on which his hopes had been set and for which he labored with such ability.” In recent biographies of Marx, historians such as Jonathan Sperber and Gareth Stedman Jones have argued that his ideas belong in the past.
But Marx’s defenders have always been as ardent as his critics.
The newspapers representing the vibrant American labor movement memorialized Marx as a figure of world-shaking consequence. And there have been moments when his ideas have had wider influence in this country. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people used Marx as a guide to the chaos of life in capitalist America. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald, famous raconteur of the rich, counseled his daughter to read “the terrible chapter in Das Kapital on The Working Day, and see if you are ever quite the same.”
On the German philosopher’s two-hundredth birthday, we are again witnessing a Marx revival. Against the biographers who think the old man is no longer relevant, Americans are reading and writing about Marx at levels not seen since the 1930s or 1960s. So, it’s worthing asking: Why Marx? Why now?
In his introduction to a new edition of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, the left-wing former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis argues that the Manifesto’s theory that capitalism was designed to expand across the globe was made manifest when globalization took form in the 1990s. For Marx to have finally been proven right—in what Varoufakis describes as a “delicious irony”—“the regimes that pledged allegiance to the Manifesto had first to be torn asunder.” Official Communism stood in the way of the global capitalism that Marx foresaw.
Today, from Manchester to Moscow, from Kansas City to Kinshasa, capitalism “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”
While the revolutionary engine of capitalism has arguably improved the lives of many millions of people, not only by upsetting older hierarchies but also by transforming abject poverty into merely semi-grinding poverty, capitalism has also generated misery in its wake, just as Marx predicted. Capitalism for Marx was both progressive and horrible.
In Capital Marx fleshed out the Manifesto’s maxim that capitalism digs its own grave. In his 2016 biography, Karl Marx, Stedman Jones contends that Marx failed to prove this theory because it’s unprovable—capitalism persists and might very well persist for millennia, whether workers are miserable or not.
But Stedman Jones misses the point. The reason Capital continues to resonate—the reason Capital reading groups are currently popping up at a rapid clip—is not because people are searching for a smoking gun to prove capitalism’s fallibility. It’s because Marx’s ideas conform to a deeply felt sense about what capital did, and still does, to our labor.
Yes, it is true that work now looks very different than it did when Marx was alive. He wrote about capitalism at the inception of an industrial revolution based on a model of factory production powered by the steam engine. Since then, capitalist modes of production have been revolutionized several times over by sweeping technological innovations that neither Marx nor anyone else in the nineteenth century could have predicted. And yet, the basics as described in Capital remain: labor, in the abstract, is the source of value in a capitalist economy. As such, labor must be disciplined to maximize profits.
When we think about innovation, technological or otherwise, we can still learn from Capital. For Marx, innovation was usually a newfangled way to discipline labor. Capitalists introduced machines into the production process for at least two reasons. First, machines sped up production, which increased the surplus value that each hour of labor generated, meaning more profits. Second, and more important in Marx’s eyes, machines deskill labor so individual workers become more replaceable, which diminished the collective power of labor.
As it was for the industrial factory labor analyzed by Marx, so it is now with automation. By replacing humans with robots, capitalists not only save on labor costs. They also maintain tight control over production, a necessary goal for long-term profitability and, more crucially, class power.
By diagnosing capitalism in such a way, Marx pinpointed its compulsion to exploit as well as its compulsion to rule. Capitalism not only stole labor value from workers, but also stripped them of their autonomy. For Marx, freedom required that people have autonomy over their work. Since the majority of people in a capitalist economy lack such self-rule, capitalism is incompatible with freedom.
Ever since Marx, one of the left’s primary missions—one of the reasons for its existence—has been to expand the idea of political freedom to include economic freedom. Socialists argue that freedom requires autonomy over our work, our bodies, and our time.
Marx learned about the importance of the working day in relation to freedom while thinking about American slavery and the American civil war. He wrote several articles and letters about the subject, and in Capital he connected the abolition of slavery to the working day: “A new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California, with the seven-league boots of the locomotive.”
Many leftists might agree with Marx’s assessment of capitalism as outlined above. Where disagreement, and criticism, is much more likely, is in how Marx answered the question: what is to be done?
By highlighting capitalism’s dynamism, Marx suggested that if the working class could take command of the system it could offer humanity leisure and abundance. Marx also theorized that since capitalism washed everyone in its wake into two camps—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—it would also engender an unprecedented degree of class consciousness. The working class, which would become the vast majority of humanity, would recognize the collective power of its class position and become the vanguard of the revolution. This, for Marx, was the only rational solution to the problems posed by capitalism.
In 2018, 200 years after Marx’s birth, nothing close to this utopian vision has come to pass. The working class, a designation many people, including many workers, reject, has not grabbed the mantle of revolution.
There are dozens of plausible reasons for the failure of socialism. The siren calls of nationalism and racism have almost always proven more formidable. Capitalism has created enough winners with incentive and power to control its losers. The consumer goods generated by capitalism are too intoxicating, even for the system’s losers, to give up for the distant dream of socialism. The organizational logic of capitalism has changed such that a growing number of workers, especially in rich countries like the United States, are in service and information industries that have proven more difficult to organize than the older industrial working class.
Historians of the American left have long pointed to these forces as answers to the challenging question that Werner Sombart posed in 1906: why is there no socialism in the United States? In 2018, we should extend that question to the world.
There is no easy answer to that vexing question. Marx’s writings do not necessarily offer any smoking guns. But, the fact that Marx is once again being taken up with enthusiasm demonstrates that perhaps more and more people are willing to do the hard work of thinking a new world into existence. At the very least, it shows that we should quit pronouncing Marx dead.
Andrew Hartman teaches history at Illinois State University. He is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School and A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Hartman is currently writing a book about Karl Marx in America.
Read more on Marx and Marxism in the Dissent archives.