Howard Zinn on How Karl Marx Predicted Our World Today

On the second centenary of his birth, Karl Marx remains as relevant as ever.

Howard Zinn

Happy birthday, Karl Marx. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the September 2000 issue of In These Times, Howard Zinn wrote this review of a book about the life of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, we present Zinn’s review in full, in which he discusses how Marx predicted the world of today, with ever increasing concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with capitalism roaming the globe in search of profits, with a deepening contradiction between the colossal growth of production and the failure to distribute its fruits justly.”

To his daughter Eleanor, Marx was "the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed, a man brimming over with humor."

It takes some courage to write still another biography of Karl Marx, especially if the writer has dared to go through the 40 volumes of his writings and his correspondence. Francis Wheen seems to have done that research scrupulously, open to both colorful stories and thunderous ideas.

The time is right for a new appraisal of Marx because ignoramuses and shitheads (the spellcheck on my computer rejected this, suggesting instead hotheads, catheads, whiteheads, skinheads”) on all parts of the ideological spectrum have distorted his ideas in ridiculous ways. Forgive me, but I want to give you the flavor of Marx’s personality, which included frequent insults directed at those, whether bourgeois or left intellectuals, who drove him to distraction by disagreeing with him — not, I agree, an admirable trait, but we must be honest about people we otherwise admire.

Marx has been stupidly (there, I’ve caught the virus of virulence again) linked with Stalin, by both Stalinists and apologists for capitalism. So this is a good time to set the record straight. The reviewer of Wheen’s book in the New York Times Book Review seemed to think that the lack of Marxists in departments of economics, history and philosophy is somehow proof of the inadequacy of Marx’s theories and, absurdly, wonders why the rest of us should bother with Marx’s ideas now that the Berlin Wall has fallen.”

Wheen lets you know immediately where he stands on this matter: Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools.” Marx would have been appalled by the crimes committed in his name.” He has been calamitously misinterpreted.” And the misinterpretation has been bipartisan, as all these bloody blemishes on the history of the 20th century were justified in the name of Marxism or anti-Marxism.”

This is a worthy enterprise, to distinguish Marx himself from the actions of the so-called Marxists (who led an exasperated Marx at one time to say: I am not a Marxist.”), as well as to keep alive his still-accurate critique of capitalism.

Wheen provides a colorful romp through Marx’s life. Marx grew up in a middle-class German family, with rabbi ancestors on both sides, but his father converted to Christianity for practical reasons. (Karl in fact was baptized at the age of six.) At 18 he was engaged to the beautiful Jenny von Westphalen, whose aristocratic family admired the young Karl for his remarkable intellect, and whose father took long walks with him, reciting Homer and Shakespeare.

Marx studied first at the University of Bonn and then the University of Berlin, as a rather wild and fun-loving student even while seriously pursuing the teachings of Hegel and writing a doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy. His thesis, comparing the ideas of Democritus and Epicurus, is a ringing declaration of freedom from false authority, insisting that the true purpose of philosophy was to deny all gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness was the highest divinity.”

Hegel also saw the historical development of man’s self-consciousness as the human march toward freedom. But Marx was soon to go beyond that, to turn Hegel on his head,” to see freedom as requiring, not simply a change in consciousness, but a revolutionary change in the material conditions of life. Early on, Marx’s extraordinary intellectual power was evident. His friend Moses Hess said that Marx combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one man, and you have Dr. Marx.”

Marx was 24 when he moved to Cologne, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung. He soon began challenging the sacred laws of private property, denouncing the arrest of peasants who were using firewood from private forests, and writing editorials against the Prussian censors. What can be more infuriating to censors than to rail against censorship? They castigated the Zeitung for impudent and disrespectful criticism of the existing government institutions.” And proved it right by shutting it down.

Wheen enjoys showing the inanity of Marx’s detractors, as when they reduce his complex view of religion to unconditional hostility, quoting repeatedly his statement that religion is the opium of the people.” The full quotation, from his 1843 essay, Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” shows a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the social role of religion: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions, it is the opium of the people.”

Driven from Germany, Marx went to Paris, where he and Jenny found a little flat on the Left Bank, and where their first child, Jennichen, was born in 1844. It was in the cafes of Paris that Marx met an extraordinary group of other young radicals: Proudhon (“property is theft”); Heine, the brilliant poet; Bakunin, the wild man of anarchism and spontaneous revolution; Stirner, the supreme individualist; and, most important of all, Frederick Engels.

Engels was two years younger than Marx, but already more aware of class oppression and class struggle, having witnessed a general strike in Manchester, England, where his father owned textile mills. In 1845, at 25, Engels would write eloquently and powerfully of working-class lives in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England. He described one Manchester slum as follows: Masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys. A horde of ragged women and children swarm about here.”

Marx and Engels, meeting for the first time in August of 1844 in the Cafe de la Regence (Voltaire, Diderot and Benjamin Franklin were among its famous patrons), hit it off from the start, intellectually and personally. Engels then visited Marx’s flat, and there followed 10 days of intense and wide-ranging discussion, which Wheen, seeing this as the beginning of an extraordinary relationship, with immense historical significance, calls ten days that shook the world.”

It was in Paris, at the age of 26, that Marx wrote his famous Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” which remained unpublished until the 1930s, but which contain some of his most profound ideas. The central concept was alienation, but Marx saw the source of this alienation not as a problem of consciousness, as Hegel put it, but in the material conditions of capitalist society. Under capitalism, human beings led a nonhuman existence, being alienated from their work, from the product of their labor, from one another, from nature, from their own true selves. The solution was not in the realm of ideas, but in action to overturn these conditions.

Driven from Paris, Marx met Engels again in Brussels, and, commissioned by the Communist League of London, they (mostly Marx, it seems) fashioned one of the most influential documents of modern history, The Communist Manifesto. It appeared in French just before the 1848 revolution. The first English edition, in 1850, started with the sentence: A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe.” In the 1888 translation that became: A spectre is haunting Europe— the spectre of Communism.”

The Manifesto demolished the idea that capitalism was a natural and eternal condition. It was a stage in history, which came out of feudalism and would give way to a more humane society. Capitalism brought about an enormous development in technology and production: The bourgeoisie has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” But workers were now nothing more than commodities, their lives subject to the domination of the market. And as capitalism becomes more and more obviously inadequate to control its own enormous growth, the working class will become the instrument for its replacement.

As workers become a ruling class,” representing the vast majority of the nation, they will sweep away the conditions for the existence of all classes, and will therefore have abolished its own supremacy as a class.” The climactic sentence of the first part of the Manifesto is profoundly important, repudiating any notion of a police state, and insisting on the ultimate goal of individual freedom: In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Expelled from the continent and finding refuge finally in London, Marx labored for years in the library of the British Museum on his epic work, Capital. All this, while living with Jenny in the miserable conditions of Soho, and grieving as three of their children, two boys and a girl, died in the first years of life. Two girls, their first-born Jennichen and Laura, had survived, and a third, Eleanor, was born in London. (Eleanor was a remarkable child, politically precocious at the age of 8; Yvonne Kapp’s two-volume biography of Eleanor Marx is a wonderful description of the life of the Marx family in London.)

Wheen is unsparing in his depiction of Marx’s nastiness, directed against Ferdinand Lassalle (including anti-Semitic barbs, although anti-Semitism was not part of Marx’s philosophy or political behavior), Proudhon and other intellectuals of the left. He was unmoved by Proudhon’s plea that they should not become the leaders of a new intolerance” and responded caustically to Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty with his own diatribe, The Poverty of Philosophy. He referred to another refugee from the 1848 revolution in Germany, one August Willich, as an uneducated, four times-cuckolded jackass.” Willich challenged him to a duel, which he wisely declined.

Yet Wheen also recognizes that Marx was a loving husband and deeply affectionate father who, despite being unable to pay bills and depending on Engels for financial support, bought a piano for his daughters and sent them to the seashore to get them away from the rancid air of Soho. He read Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes to Eleanor, whose love and devotion to him were expressed throughout her life. His enemies may have seen him differently, but her father, Eleanor said, was the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed, a man brimming over with humor.”

It is to Wheen’s credit that, despite his sometimes obsessive attention to the comic elements in Marx’s life, he treats the man’s ideas with great respect. He doesn’t insist that Marx’s analysis in Capital is flawless, but sees it as a work of the imagination,” its purpose an ironic one, juxtaposed with grim, well-documented portraits of the misery and filth which capitalist laws create in practice.”

He points out how Marx predicted the world of today, with ever increasing concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with capitalism roaming the globe in search of profits, with a deepening contradiction between the colossal growth of production and the failure to distribute its fruits justly. Wheen says that the more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed to be.”

Those who would doubt Marx’s commitment to a truly democratic society should study his eloquent (second in literary brilliance only to his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) description of the 1871 Paris Commune. The Commune abolished rents and debts, equalized wages, hailed culture and education, made leaders subject to immediate recall by the people, destroyed the guillotine. Women played a crucial role in all of its activities (see Gay Gullickson, The Unruly Women of Paris). It was, Marx said, the most glorious achievement of our time.”

Howard Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States
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