The influence of Karl Marx—a counterfactual

May 5, 2021: 203 years since Karl Marx's birth

The two hundredth anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth is giving rise to many conferences dedicated to numerous (and God knows there were many) aspects of Marx’s work and  life. (I am going to one such conference in Haifa.) Add to it an even greater number of reviews of his work and influence (Peter Singer just published one a couple of days ago), new books on his life, a movie on Young Marx and the list goes on.

I will also look here at Marx’s intellectual influence—but from a very different angle. I will use the counterfactual approach. I would ask what would had been his influence had not three remarkable events happened. Clearly, like all counterfactuals, it is based on personal reading of history and guesswork. It cannot be proven right.  I am sure that others could come with different  counterfactuals—perhaps better than mine.

The first event: had there been no Engels. This counterfactual had been discussed but it is worth reviewing. When Karl Marx died in 1883, he was the coauthor of The Communist Manifesto, a number of political and social short studies, newspaper articles (in the New York Daily Tribune) and a thick but not well-known or much translated book called Capital (volume 1). It was published 16 years before his death and during the intervening years he wrote a lot but published little. Toward the end of his life, he even wrote little. Similarly unpublished and in a mess were hundreds of pages of his manuscripts from the late 1840s, and the 1850s and 1860s. Marx was known among the rather small circle of worker activists, and German, Austrian and increasingly Russian social-democrats. Had it remained so, that is, had not Engels spent more than ten years putting Marx’s papers in order and producing two additional volumes of Das Capital, Marx’s fame would have ended at the point where it was in 1883. It would have been rather minimal. I doubt that anyone would have remembered his birthday today (he was born on 5th of May).

But thanks to Engels’ selfless work and dedication (and Engels’ own importance in German social-democracy), Marx’s importance grew.  Social-democrats became the largest party in Germany and this further carried Marx’s influence forward. Under Kautsky, The Theories of Surplus Value were published. The only other countries where, within a very narrow circle though, he was influential were Russia and Austria-Hungary.

The first decade of the 20th century saw increasing influence of Marxist thought, so much so that Leszek Kolakowski in his monumental Main currents of Marxism rightly calls it “the golden age”. It was indeed the golden age of Marxist thought  in terms of the caliber of people who wrote in the Marxist vein, but not in terms of global influence. For Marx’s thought made no inroads into the Angle-Saxon world (the first English translation of Das Kapital—which is still, strangely, referred to by its German title--was in 1887, that is twenty years after its original publication). And in Southern Europe, including France, he was eclipsed by anarchists and by “petty bourgeois socialists”.

This is where the things would have ended had there not been the Great War. I think that Marx’s influence would have steadily gone down as the social-democrats in Germany moved toward reformism and “revisionism”. His picture would have probably been displayed among the historical “maîtres à penser” of the German social-democracy but not much of his influence would have remained, neither in policy nor (probably) in social sciences.

But then the October Revolution came (the second event). This totally transformed the scene. Not only because he was “allotted” the glory, unique among social scientists, to be single-handedly ideologically responsible for a momentous change in one big country and in world history, but because socialism, due to its worldwide appeal, “catapulted” Marx’s thought and fame. His thinking, whether for good or ill, became unavoidable in most of Europe, whether among intellectuals, political activists, labor leaders and ordinary workers. Evening schools were organized by trade unionists to study his writings;  political leaders, due to the particularly dogmatic turn taken by the Communist parties, planned  their moves and explained them by the references to the hitherto little known Marx’s historical writings.

Then as the Comintern began to abandon its Eurocentrism and to get engaged into anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World, Marx’s influence expanded to the areas no one could have predicted it would. He became the ideologue of the new movements for social revolution and national liberation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Whether political leaders stuck to his precepts or abandoned them (as Mao did by putting peasantry rather than workers in the role of the revolutionary class), Marx influenced them—and it is in the reference to him that they explained their policies. Thanks to Trotsky and Stalin in Russia to the left-wing republicans in Spain, popular front in France, Mao in China, Ho Shi Minh in Vietnam, Tito in Yugoslavia, Castro in Cuba, Agostino Neto in Angola, Nkrumah in Ghana, Mandela in South Africa, Marx became a global “influencer”. Never had a social scientist had such a global reach. Who would have thought that two bearded 19th century Germans would adorn on special occasions the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing?

And not only did he have global influence, but his influence cut across class and professional lines. I have already mentioned revolutionary leaders, politicians and trade unionists. But the influence spread to the academe, to high schools; it influenced strongly both those who opposed him and those who extolled him. That influence went from elementary Marxism that was taught to high-school students to sophisticated philosophical treatises or “analytical Marxism “ in economics. The publication of Marx’s manuscripts from 1844-46, brought us the unknown young Marx and that moved the discussion to an even higher plane: there was now a philosophical battle between the Young and classical Marx.

None of that would have happened without the October revolution and a decisive turn away from Eurocentrism and towards the Third World. It is the latter that transformed Marx from a German and European  thinker into a global figure.

As communism’s crimes became better known, and gradually increasingly laid at Marx’s door, and as communist regimes sputtered and their mournful and poorly educated ideologues regurgitated predictable phrases, Marx’s thought suffered an eclipse. The fall of communist regimes brought it to its low point.

But then –the third event—globalized capitalism that exhibits all the features that Marx so eloquently described in Das Capital, and the Global Financial Crisis, made his thought relevant again. By now he was safely ensconced into the Pantheon of global philosophers, his every extant word published, his books available in all the languages of the world, and  his status, while still subject to vagaries of time, safe—at least in the sense that it could never fall into obscurity and oblivion.

In fact, his influence is inextricably linked with capitalism. So long as capitalism exists, Marx will be read as its most astute analyst. If capitalism ceases  to exist, he will be read as its best critic. So whether we believe that in another 200 years, capitalism will be with us or not, we can be sure that Marx will.

His place is now there with that of Plato and Aristotle, but were it not for the three favorable and unlikely turns of events, we might have hardly heard of an obscure German émigré who died long time ago in London, accompanied to his grave by eight people.